Delayed flights and cancelled flights are a part of traveling. Learn the rules, regulations and how to recoup your losses.
(For international travel rights & rules regarding flights between the Europe Union and the US see next chapter.)
US airlines don’t guarantee schedules. If the passenger is late, the airline response is often draconian. However, should people ever have delayed flights because of the airline (in the USA), passengers are provided virtually no compensation. The airline attitude amounts to, “Tough.”
Passengers should realize this when planning a trip. There are many things that can — and often do — make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. Some of these problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control.
When there are delayed flights, try to find out how late it will be, but keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult for airlines to estimate the total duration of a delay during its early stages. In so-called “creeping delays,” developments occur which were not anticipated when the carrier made its initial estimate of the length of the delay.
Weather that had been forecast to improve can instead deteriorate, or a mechanical problem can turn out to be more complex than initially evaluated. If the problem is with local weather or air traffic control, all flights will probably be late and there’s not much you or the airline can do to speed up a departure.
If a flight is experiencing a lengthy delay, passengers might be better off trying to arrange another flight, as long as they don’t have to pay a cancellation penalty or higher fare for changing reservations. (It is sometimes easier to make such arrangements by phone than at a ticket counter.) If passengers find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline if it will endorse the ticket to the new carrier; this could save a fare collection. Remember, however, that there is no rule requiring airlines to do this.
If a flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook travelers on their first flight to the destination on which space is available, at no additional charge. If this involves a significant delay, find out if another carrier has space and ask the first airline if the airline will endorse your ticket to the other carrier. Finding extra seats may be difficult, especially over holidays and other peak travel times.
Most times when flights are canceled, passengers have the option to get a full refund. This works when the canceled flight is the first of a series of flights; however, should the canceled flight be later in the itinerary, individuals need to fend for themselves to get to their destination. Airlines should help, but action taken by passengers can have a huge impact.
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. If passengers are delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control. Contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers who have domestic delayed flights or canceled flights.
(See the chapter on European Union (EU) canceled and delayed flights for rules on all flights within Europe or leaving Europe; and for EU airlines departing from the USA.)
Delayed flights – Mechanical delays
If there’s a mechanical problem with your plane, or if the crew has incoming delayed flights, passengers might be better off trying to arrange a flight on another airline. Ask the first airline to “endorse” (authorize the transfer of) your ticket to the new carrier; this should save you a fare increase. All major carriers have rules and interline agreements that allow agents to put delayed passengers on another carrier “at the request of the passenger.”
When faced with a mechanical problem resulting in a delay, most airlines will attempt to keep their passengers traveling on their airline. Rather than transferring passengers to other carriers when faced with a delay, they either reroute passengers on another itinerary on their airline or simply ask passengers to wait. In many cases, waiting is the best and/or only option.
But in situations where competing airlines have flights traveling to the same destination, it may be possible to have a ticket switched to another airline and arrive more or less on time.
Many airlines follow a rule of thumb I call the “four hour rule.” If airlines can find transportation on their own aircraft that will allow the passenger to arrive within four hours of their originally scheduled arrival time, the airline may make travelers wait for the same airline’s next flight heading to your destination.
NOTE: Rather than wait in a long line at the ticket counter or boarding gate for a seat reservation after an unexpected flight cancellation, call the toll-free reservations number and ask the agent to book you on the next available flight. That way, passengers immediately lock in a new flight. They will only have to wait in line for the ticket change, but with great peace of mind.
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for passengers waiting for delayed flights at the airport. There is one constant rule — if passengers don’t ask, the airlines won’t give. Ask, ask, ask. Ask for a meal voucher. Ask to have your ticket be “endorsed” to another airline. Specific written amenity rules only seem to come into play when overnight accommodations are allowable. Any other amenities are strictly customer service.
If passengers are delayed, check with the airline staff to find out what services they will provide. Ask about meals and phone calls. Basically, if the delay is mechanical (the airline’s fault) and for more than an hour, they will go overboard to help; if the delay is due to weather (Act of God) you’re on your own.
In cases where the airline decides to provide overnight accommodations for delayed passengers, remember that passengers are under no obligation to accept the lodging selected by the airline. If passengers are sent to a subpar motel or motor inn, they may complain and often be put up in a far better property.
Though the airlines will all vehemently deny it, passengers traveling with a full-fare coach ticket, or full-fare Business Class or First Class, will have more clout and often receive better compensation. Some of this treatment, such as easy endorsements to other airlines, is built into the fare structure. Sometimes the treatment, such as a free flight coupon or entry into the airline clubs, is based on the airline’s interest in keeping a full-fare-paying passenger or elite frequent flier.
Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delayed flights are caused by something beyond the airline’s control.
Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed arrival. (See EU international rule chapter for transatlantic flight rules.) If the purpose of a trip is to close a lucrative business deal, to give a speech or lecture, to attend a family function, or to be present at any other time-sensitive event, passengers may want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays and cancellations aren’t unusual, and defensive counter-planning is a good idea when time is a passenger’s most important consideration.
If passengers are holding a full-fare ticket — or any ticket, for that matter — and you don’t want to add to the confusion at the airport, but feel you should receive some compensation for a delay within the airline’s control, write a letter to the airline’s Customer Service Office. The addresses and phone numbers are available on their websites.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Airlines are not responsible for getting passengers to the final destination on their itinerary if passengers were planning to change to another airline during their travels.
For instance: a passenger flying on a shuttle flight from Boston to New York City may be delayed by air traffic (not unusual) and that delay causes the passenger to miss a connecting flight to Europe — the shuttle airline is not responsible for the passenger’s failure to connect. Any additional fees to change tickets or costs of remaining in New York overnight will be the passenger’s responsibility.
If the flights in question were connecting flights on the same airline or partner airlines, the policies of the airlines concerned would treat the passenger very differently and they would probably help make arrangements to get their passenger to Europe.
Suggestions for anyone running late for a connection:
If a flight is late and the connection at the next airport is in jeopardy, tell a flight attendant while you are in flight, or let the gate agent know if you are still at the gate. Some airlines will make arrangements to take you by car or van between terminals, or use small electric carts that can get passengers to their gate much faster than they can get there walking. Tweet about your problem with the airline. If there are enough late connecting passengers, airlines may delay connecting flights.
While on the airplane, check the in-flight magazine for a diagram of the airport where the aircraft will be deplaning. The flight attendant or a web connection to the airline website can help find out the arrival gate and that of any connecting flight. Knowing the layout of the airport can help passengers move a bit faster.
As soon as one gets off the plane, let a customer service agent know about the connection problem. They often have radios or cellular phones and will call ahead to the gate to let the boarding personnel know other passengers are on their way. The boarding crew also are in contact with the electric carts scooting between gates.
Suggestions for anyone dealing with a predicted snowstorm or severe weather:
If a flight turns out to be scheduled on the same day as a predicted snowstorm or other major weather problem, check with the airline to find out whether or not it is permitted to fly out on standby status the day before the snowstorm, or delay departure for a couple of days. Even if the telephone agent can’t give an answer, head to the airport. Most airline airport personnel are happy to get as many passengers out of their hair before the predicted cancellations and delays. I learned from one airline, operating from Boston before a predicted one-foot snowstorm, that all penalties and charges for changing all categories of tickets had been suspended for three days in order to ease the crunch at the airport during the storm.
If passengers can not get the airline to change a ticket on the phone or via the airline website, as a last resort, head to the airport. The gate agents have much more flexibility than any phone operator. If passengers still cannot get out on the day before a storm, head to the airport early on the day of your flight. There will be more opportunities to fly “standby” on an earlier flight. This way, passengers have a much better chance to take off before the airport closes or flights become hopelessly delayed.
Suggestions for anyone changing a nonrefundable or special-fare ticket:
Airlines often will allow passengers to change a ticket from one local airport to another without a charge. For instance, during a trip travelers may find that it is easier to fly to JFK rather than to Newark; or from Manchester, NH, rather than Boston. If flights are “wide open,” airlines may help out. Make these changes at the airline special services desk or by phone. There is normally no charge. However, make sure to have any arrangements in writing before heading to the new departure airport. If a passenger shows up without a properly changed ticket, the airline may charge them the one-way fare back home.
Never pay for anything at the airport thinking that writing a letter to the customer service department will get money refunded later. Once the airlines have a passenger’s money, rarely will they return any. If travelers are told one thing by a telephone agent or on the Web, and another when they arrive at the airport, find a supervisor and sort out any confusion and necessary payments on the spot.
AIRPORT TIP: If passengers have to spend the night at an airport at their own expense, see if the airline customer service representative will call and get a Distressed Passenger Rate, or ask the hotel manager (decision maker) for it.
If it is important, fly early
Compensation is required by law only when passengers are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight.
If the purpose of a trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, passengers might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays and cancellations aren’t unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is the most important consideration. These are airline common sense solutions.
All airlines do not follow these common sense rules, but many do. Asking politely for help is always recommended. Sometimes, airlines will surprise even the most jaded travelers.
Some delayed flights are on the airport “tarmac” before taking off or after landing. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless:
- The pilot determines that there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers, or
- Air traffic control advises the pilot that taxiing to the gate (or to another location where passengers can be deplaned) would significantly disrupt airport operations.
U.S. airlines operating international flights to or from most U.S.airports must each establish and comply with their own limit on the length of tarmac delays on those flights. On both domestic and international flights, U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins. While the aircraft remains on the tarmac, lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available, if needed.
When booking a flight remember that departures early in the day are less likely to be delayed flights than a later flight, due to “ripple” effects of delays throughout the day. Also, if an early flight does get delayed or canceled, passengers have more rerouting options. If they book the last flight of the day and it is canceled, they could get stuck overnight.
Passengers may select a connection (change of planes) over a nonstop or direct flight because of the convenient departure time or lower fare. However, a change of planes always involves the possibility of a misconnection. If they have a choice of connections and the fares and service are equivalent, choose the one with the least-congested connecting airport, so it will be easier to get to the second flight.
Also take into consideration the potential for adverse weather when there is a choice of connecting cities. When making a reservation for a connection, always check the amount of time between flights and plan for delayed flights.