If you fly even semi-regularly, a flight cancellation is likely in your future.
The news came early on Monday morning: Delta Airlines' entire system was down. Like, the whole thing. What had started as an isolated outage in Atlanta had somehow spread like a virus to cripple their entire worldwide system. For the next six hours, no Delta flight could depart as scheduled. Hundreds of flights were cancelled. Thousands were delayed. This was, of course, costly to Delta, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. But all those cancelled and delayed flights also meant thousands of stranded, stressed, and confused would-be passengers.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only outage for a major airline this year. Southwest Airlines suffered a similar outage just a couple weeks ago.
A month ago, a problem with a router brought United Airlines' operations to a standstill for two hours.
In January, JetBlue delayed scores of flights due to an interruption of power to the data center where all of their systems are hosted.
Of course, system outages aren't the only thing that can bring on flight cancellations. So can maintenance problems, adverse weather, security breaches, and labor strikes. Sometimes they overbook and you're the one left out at the gate. Yes, flight cancellations are far more common than any passenger wants to acknowledge.
With nearly 100,000 flights cancelled every year (almost 3%) flight cancellations are common enough that even the casual traveler should be ready for one.
Yes, there are ways to decrease your chances of being inconvenienced by a canceled flight. Forbes contributor Ted Ball recommends flying in the morning, avoid regional jets flying out of hub airports, and checking a route's on-time performance before booking. But what if, despite your best laid plans, you end up sitting at that gate when an airline representative gets on the loudspeaker and announces that your flight has been cancelled?
At this point, you are in a race against time to find an alternate route and make sure you're justly compensated for your troubles. The moment you find out your flight has been canceled, here are the 11 things you must do to win that race:
When that fateful announcement hits, the mass of now-stranded passengers will instinctively converge on the counter. The person making the announcement might even instruct everyone to do so. But if you want to greatly increase your odds of getting to your final destination in a timely fashion, you won't follow the flock.
No, the fastest way for you to get placed on a replacement flight is to get on your phone. Whitson Gordon, Lifehacker blogger, implores stranded passengers:
"When your flight gets cancelled, drop everything and call your airline. Don't follow the airline's directions and get in line, hoping for the best-pick up your phone...and call the airline. You'll essentially skip the line people waiting to rebook."
A failure on the airline's part has suddenly made your life much suckier-and somebody's going to pay for it. That's right, you deserve some compensation. Whether or not you actually get that compensation depends on your situation and the airline you're dealing with.
For instance, passengers bumped from a flight because of overbooking are entitled to compensation, according to a new bill from the Department of Transportation. If you're delayed for two hours or less, the airline has to compensate you twice the price of your ticket, up to $800. You get up to $1,300 if your delay goes longer than two hours.
And what if your flight is just delayed or canceled? In this case it depends on the policy of the airline with which you're dealing. Too busy to hunt down your airline's cancellation policy? FareCompare was nice enough to compile the policies of the major carriers in one handy table:
If it sounds mysterious, maybe like something out of a spy movie, it's because only the most elite travelers know about Rule 240. Before the wholesale deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated that "an airline with a delayed or canceled flight had to transfer passengers to another carrier if the second carrier could get passengers to the destination more quickly than the original airline."
This put a significant-some might say unfair-burden on airlines and was omitted from policy following deregulation. Fortunately for stranded passengers, the spirit of Rule 240 still lives on with most major U.S. airlines. Unfortunately, the use of Rule 240 is mostly limited to delays that are absolutely the airline's fault, like mechanical issues. It doesn't cover weather events, strikes, or other events outside the airline's control.
If you fall into the first category, don't afraid to bring up Rule 240 to your airline rep. They will know right away that you know what you're entitled to and act faster to make it happen.
Why sort through all of your flight options over the phone or at the counter when you can get them all laid out in front of you on your smartphone? In a cancellation scenario, experts swear by the power of apps to get you the information you need to get another flight tout suit.
"Use TripIt or WorldMate to rebook," recommends Ball. "The premium versions of these essential travel apps (you load up your itineraries auto-magically by forwarding your confirmation emails to their address) allow you to quickly find alternative flights via your phone so you can rebook quickly if your flight gets canceled."
Cool fact: If your delay is going to extend beyond two hours-which most airlines consider to be a "severe" delay-you can get a refund, no questions asked. Even on so-called non-refundable airfare.
Let's say you've successfully reserved a seat on another flight, but it's going to be a few hours before takeoff. Thankfully, you don't have to pass the time in the terminal with the sweaty, stressed out masses. For a reasonable fee, usually about $50, you can chill in style in an airport lounge, which is sort of like being transported back to the '60s when air travel was sexy and chic.
About airport lounges, George Hobica of the LA Times gives this hearty recommendation:
"If you're going to be stuck for hours, it's worth it. Also, the lines for rebooking or information will be shorter in these lounges than in the terminals."
Oh, and did I mention the free food and drinks, exclusive restrooms, and peaceful vibe? If you can afford it, you definitely want to discover the magic of the airport lounge.
More compensation! According to Skyscanner.net, "If you have been issued with a new flight ticket and have to wait in the airport for over two hours for a short-haul flight or over four hours for a long flight, you should be provided with food and drink vouchers at the airport."
With your new ticket and some grub secured, your next order of business is to make sure your checked-in luggage doesn't end up in Milwaukee (unless that's your final destination, of course). Before you get off the phone with the airline, ensure that they have applied your new flight information to your luggage. Airlines are required to get you your luggage within 24 hours of your arrival, but a little proactivity can make sure this happens a lot faster.
So what if your cancellation falls outside of the protection of Rule 240? If you purchased travel insurance, which is highly recommended, you might want to review your policy while hanging out in the lounge. Many policies will provide payouts for missed, cancelled, or delayed flights due to factors outside of the airline's control.
As an added bonus, according to Hobica, these policies will also often cover meals, hotel fees, and other costs associated with getting to your destination. Some-but not all-also cover electrical outages and computer system shutdowns specifically.
What if you didn't purchase travel insurance? You would do well to check the protection provided by the credit card you used to purchase your original ticket. Airline-associated credit cards will often provide delay protection.
"Some credit cards, notably those issued by Chase for United and Sapphire and some upper-tier Citibank American Airlines cards, offer trip delay protection (typically up to $500 for meals, hotels, etc.) for 'equipment failure'...You must have charged your trip with the credit card, of course."
You can't stay in the lounge forever. If your new flight has you waiting overnight, don't rest until you've secured a room at a nearby hotel. Typically, when large numbers of flights are cancelled simultaneously, stranded passengers first scramble to grab alternative flights and then to grab hotel rooms. Local hotels can quickly be filled.
So, before you hit the 'relax' button on your flight cancellation experience, make sure you know where you're going to sleep that night. Or risk sleeping next to strangers on a cold tile floor with your carry-on as a pillow.