What to Do When Your Flight is Canceled?
Have your travel arrangements been disrupted or delayed? Knowing your rights can help reduce your stress.
By Robert Isenberg
It’s a variant of Murphy’s Law: If you travel often enough, you will get stuck at the airport. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself loitering by the gate, eating Skittles, re-reading your Tom Clancy novel and waiting for the latest announcement: That your flight’s been delayed another 25 minutes. Or worse yet, that it’s been canceled altogether. Such snags can make you feel terrible, especially after the exhausting process of checking in, passing through security and waiting in line for a soggy burrito. You’ve done everything you were supposed to do (you even remembered to put all your liquids in a quart-size bag), and now, because of engine trouble or a hydraulic leak or terrible weather, you’re stuck in a shabby terminal, surrounded by angry people, thousands of miles from home. Well, you can handle it. Flights are canceled from time to time—sometimes it’s inevitable, and even if you own a private jet, you’re still at the mercy of roving thunderstorms and mechanical difficulties. But sooner or later, the delay will end, and you’ll get where you’re going. Here are some suggestions to help you put the wheels in motion and make the rest of your journey as smooth as possible. Call ahead Who are you expecting will meet you at the airport? Maybe your brother is picking you up, or a business partner is waiting at the Au Bon Pain. Perhaps you plan to find a limo driver standing on the concourse, holding up a sign with your name on it. First, make some phone calls. Think of the people you’ve arranged to meet and the hotel reservations you’ve made. Call your boss, who might wonder why you’re not at work. Like traffic jams and sick kids, canceled flights are a common problem, and most people will understand why you’re late. Even if your cell phone is dead, you can still find pay phones at the airport, and prepaid phone cards are available in many gift shops. Plan ahead Traveling to Boston in February? Hoping to hit up Bourbon Street for Mardi Gras? Passing through Tel Aviv on your return trip from Indonesia? It’s a good idea to anticipate where and why you might get delayed; bad weather, hordes of tourists and security alerts all can cause extra disruption to your travel plans. Plus, consider this rule of thumb about air travel: The bigger the airport, the slower the process of arrival and departure, and the better chance you’ll get stuck there. If you’re hitting O’Hare in December, you might want to get in touch with your friends in Chicago—just in case you run into an unexpected blizzard.
Stay calm If you’ve never experienced a canceled flight, you’ll be amazed how irate some passengers can get. And it’s a passive-aggressive fury—after all, anger is especially unwelcome in airports, where security is tight—so travelers tend to unload their rage on helpless ticketing agents. (“What’s wrong with you people?” “This is unbelievable.” “I’m never flying this airline again!” Before you make such a dire declaration, however, consider whether the airline next door is experiencing the same bad weather.) If you stop for a moment to take a deep breath, drink some water, clear your head and put the situation in perspective, it’ll be easier to approach the ticketing agent with an open mind. It’s OK to express disappointment, but remember that the airline employee isn’t personally responsible for canceling your flight. If anything, the agent is frustrated too, because now she has to attempt to accommodate all of those angry travelers. If you’re looking for favors (like a free hotel room, or the first available flight), being courteous only increases your chances of getting them. Your Contract of Carriage Somewhere in your e-ticket confirmation, or on the back of your boarding pass, you’ll find a reference to your airline’s Contract of Carriage (it can be found in full on your airline’s Web site). This is a promise the airline makes to its customers, outlining all your rights, including information on what happens in the event of a canceled flight or a missed connection. The fine print may seem daunting. “Times shown in timetable and elsewhere are not guaranteed,” says the contract for US Airways. “US Airways is not responsible or liable for making connections, or for failing to operate a flight according to schedule, or for changing the schedule of any flight.” But keep this in mind: Airlines run a cutthroat business. Customer care is a top priority—right behind flight safety and security—and nobody in the chain of command wants to create a bad image for the company. So airlines will do almost anything to keep their customers satisfied. For example, US Airways’ policy is to rebook stranded passengers on the next available flight “for no additional charge.” For delays of two hours or more, the company also will provide customers with a prepaid phone card. After three hours, you get a food voucher for an airport or hotel restaurant. And in extreme cases, the company will even provide lodging—but only in certain situations (“Overnight accommodations will not be provided for customers whose flights are delayed or canceled due to circumstances beyond US Airways’ control such as Air Traffic Control or weather”).
If it’s sleeting or you’re traveling to Florida on spring break, get familiar with your contract. Knowing your rights (as well as the restrictions) makes negotiating with your airline a lot easier. Customer Bill of Rights Earlier this year, snowstorms caused major delays at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport—as well as humiliating problems for JetBlue, whose customers were stuck on the tarmac for hours, fuming with frustration. While JetBlue’s reputation took a hit—and airlines in general suffered some critical whiplash—the snafu eventually worked in customers’ favor: JetBlue has become particularly sensitive to how it cares for its customers. The winter delays of 2007 have become a cultural reference point, an event that none of its customers or its personnel wish to relive (JetBlue CEO David Neeleman publicly apologized for the airline’s difficulties). The airline now promises to financially compensate customers for “controllable irregularities” (again, make sure you know how such terms are defined). Though JetBlue was the only carrier to issue an official Customer Bill of Rights, the document has affected other airlines. It’s added that much more pressure to ensure you get home as safely and as quickly as possible. Make the best of the situation OK, so you’re stuck in Chicago for the night. Your significant other knows where you are, your hotel room has been comped and everybody knows you’ll be late for the conference. Now what? Under these circumstances, it’s best to treat yourself—to a nice dinner, a martini at the hotel bar, a movie, a massage, anything that’ll make you feel better. You can’t change the weather, but you can get yourself a gift. After such a stressful ordeal, you certainly deserve it. Robert Isenberg is a writer and actor. His mismanaged flights have led to vouchers, complimentary hotel rooms, upgrades to business class and stays in exclusive airport clubs.