The last few weeks, we’ve seen thousands of flight cancellations and delays by major airlines and especially by Southwest and American Airlines. I wrote extensively about what caused them (mostly staffing issues after a little bit of bad weather) but travelers don’t care what the problem was. All they care about is getting from Point A to Point B safely and on time.
But when that doesn’t happen and there are mass cancelations or delays, my phone starts blowing up from friends, family and readers asking what they’re entitled to. The short answer? Not much. The long answer? It depends on the airline and the reason.
For starters, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection guidelines state: “In the United States, airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled. Compensation is required by U.S. law only when certain passengers are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold. The Department’s rules regarding flight delays and cancellations apply only to flights that operate to, from, or within the United States. However, passengers flying between or within foreign countries may be protected from flight delays and cancellations by the laws of another nation.”
The DOT also answers some popular questions, like: “If my flight is cancelled, can my airline put me on another airline’s flight?”
“Yes. While airlines are not required to put you on another airline’s flight, they can and sometimes do, so it does not hurt to politely ask your airline if it will transfer your ticket to another airline that has a flight with available seats. Ask the airline or check online to see if another carrier has open seats and then ask if the first airline will transfer your ticket to that carrier. Remember, however, that airlines are not required to do this. Also, be aware that finding available seats on another airline’s flight may be difficult, especially during holidays and other peak travel times.”
This information comes directly from the horse’s mouth so major airlines like American, Delta and United have interline agreements where they can put you on another carrier’s flight (Southwest does not). But as the DOT warns, the airlines don’t have to do this, although some do as a gesture of goodwill. It really helps if you have elite status, an expensive first class ticket or are really nice to the agent; you’ll have a better chance of this happening. But keep in mind that even if an airline is willing to put you on another flight these days (especially over the holidays), almost all flights are completely full or oversold so there’s just no place to put you even if they wanted to. This is the main reason why you want to show up extra early to the airport (even if you have CLEAR, TSA PreCheck or elite status) and have a backup plan.
I always try to book the first flight out in the mornings since it’s the flight least likely to get canceled. But there have been times when I was on the last flight out and it was canceled. Most major airlines will put you up in a hotel and provide you a taxi and/or meal voucher but they don’t have to by law. The DOT states: “Airlines are not required to provide passengers with money or other compensation for costs that fall outside of the cancelled airline ticket and fees tied directly to the airline ticket (such as baggage fees, seat upgrades, etc.) when flights are cancelled. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for passengers whose flights have been cancelled. If your flight is cancelled, ask the airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.”
I’ve had plenty of flights cancel over the last twenty years and almost every time, the airline has put me up. But I usually have elite status and I’m extremely friendly (another reason to bring this to the gate agents and flight attendants). The last time it happened to me, I was flying JFK to LAX with my dad and American Airlines put us all up at an airport hotel, about five miles away. They provided shared vans for the passengers.
I know many frequent travelers won’t even wait around for the airline to put them up. They just make a hotel reservation right away (before they all fill up) and jump in a taxi or rideshare and fight with the airline later. Again, if you’re a frequent flier, you will have much better luck getting reimbursed.
What happens when my flight is cancelled?
The official response from the DOT states: “If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.“
Oh, and if you miss your cruise, honeymoon, wedding, etc. because of an airline canceling or severely delaying your flight, you’re out of luck. “Airlines are not required to reimburse you for any trip costs affected by the cancelled flight, such as a prepaid hotel room, a cruise, a vacation, concert or other tickets, or lost wages.”
So your best bet is to always to leave extra early (whenever I go on a cruise, I always arrive at the port of departure a day or two early), have a backup plan and purchase travel insurance.
RELATED: What to Do: Weather Delays and Flight Cancellations
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