How Travelers Can Navigate Flight Cancellations and Delays

Flight delays and cancellations are unfortunate inevitabilities, especially in summer, when more people are flying and severe weather tends to occur more frequently.

How can you get your trip back on track when things go frustratingly wrong? Start by reading the fine print before booking, understanding what’s owed to you and being proactive at the airport in asking for what you want. Here’s how to do it.

Download your airline’s app, which often shows an aircraft’s location and also posts timely updates on a flight’s status or gate changes. Updates may appear here before anywhere else.

The day of your flight, you can also scan FlightAware, a flight-tracking service accessible by app and website, to get a sense of delays and cancellations across major airports. Keep an eye on the weather, too.

It can help to know what airlines your carrier partners with, in case you need to be rebooked on another airline. In addition to partnerships like code shares, when an airline operates a flight on behalf of another, or alliances, most airlines also have relationships known as interline agreements that allow them to transfer passengers to flights on other carriers.

This information isn’t always readily available online; experts suggest calling an airline’s customer service for more guidance.

Be aware that if you have a ticket with a low-cost airline, like Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines or Spirit Airlines, you are most likely out of luck: They generally do not rebook on any other carrier.

The Transportation Department’s airline cancellation and delay dashboard is a helpful resource that spells out what 10 of the larger domestic airlines offer passengers. But this dashboard is not your only tool. Customer-service plans for specific airlines (located on their websites, and with links from the D.O.T. dashboard) have further detail about passenger entitlements.

For example, if your United Airlines flight is canceled because of reasons within the carrier’s control, such as understaffing, and you are rerouted to a flight that departs the next day, you are entitled to a voucher for food, a nearby partner hotel and transportation. If a room is not available at the airline’s hotel, and you must find another accommodation, United will reimburse you for “reasonable hotel costs.” There’s nothing on the United customer-service site indicating that food receipts or taxi receipts will be reimbursed.

If a delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault, most major carriers can also rebook you on another airline. A few have this ability regardless of what led to the disruption.

In most instances, American Airlines will rebook you on another airline if there are no American flights until the next day. Delta Air Lines also commits to organizing flights on alternative airlines if necessary, though it is not clear under what circumstances it will do this.

In the United States, if your flight is canceled, for whatever reason, all airlines must either rebook you on another flight or give you a prompt refund, even if you have a nonrefundable ticket, according to the Transportation Department.

When a delay or cancellation is caused by the airline, passengers — in most cases — are entitled to a handful of services after wait times have exceeded three hours. Major carriers will provide meals or meal vouchers. And if travelers are forced to stay overnight, most airlines will cover the costs of a hotel stay and associated transport.

But getting what you’re entitled to can be a challenge when hundreds of passengers are lined up and waits for a customer service rep on the phone can stretch to hours. That’s where being strategic can make a difference.

Mary Cropper, a travel specialist at Audley Travel, advised against asking for help at the gate, where many other passengers will be, too. Instead, seek out an airline’s service desk. Airport lounges, some of which are accessible by day pass, may also be a swifter avenue to assistance, she said.

When you do reach the customer service rep, be prepared with the specific request for the outcome you want, whether it’s being rebooked on a certain flight or a flight on a partner airline, or departing from a different airport from the one you might be stranded in. Don’t just ask what your options are.

“If an alternate flight arrangement does not get you where you need to be or when you need to be there, ask for something better,” said James Ferrara, the founder of InteleTravel, a global travel adviser network. And mention if you’re a frequent flier or have an inflexible commitment like a wedding or a work conference, he added.

Experts said passengers can also take matters into their own hands, whether that’s booking a hotel or a new flight, and submitting receipts later for reimbursement with an airline’s customer relations team. However, there is some risk that an airline won’t foot the bill, said Bobby Laurie, a travel expert and former flight attendant.

“You also have to be 100 percent sure you are in the right and are owed the reimbursement,” he said. “Armed with information, you make the best advocate for yourself. But you really, really, have to read the fine print.”

In the European Union, flight cancellations or long delays may give passengers the right to either a refund or a replacement flight. There may also be compensation of up to 600 euros, around $660, based on factors such as how long you waited, how much notice you were given about a schedule change, the flight’s distance, and the cause of the delay or cancellation.

The rule covers all passengers, regardless of nationality, and outbound flights from and within the European Union, including on U.S. carriers. On flights into E.U. countries, it applies only to E.U. carriers.

AirHelp, a Berlin-based flight compensation company, has a comprehensive guide outlining passenger rights in many countries.

Any compensation or help offered by the airlines hinges on whether the reason for the cancellation lies within a carrier’s control, such as staffing or maintenance issues. Air traffic control woes and the weather are not. Weather is the leading cause of delays this year to date, and “creeping delays” are the bane of every air traveler.

It may feel unfair, but “if your flight is canceled because of a thunderstorm,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Going.com, a website that sends alerts for travel deals, “don’t expect the airline to cover your meals or accommodations.”


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