Flight Canceled or Delayed? What to Do Amid Airline Chaos

The summer vacation is back — if you can get there, that is. Resurgent demand is driving the aviation industry to cancel and delay flights. You have the recipe for disaster when you add in summer thunderstorms, which are normal season turbulence, and the pilot shortage.

Flight-tracking company FlightAware reports that about 3% have been cancelled annually in America. Memorial Day weekend saw about 5% of U.S. flight schedules cancelled and 26% delayed. Kathleen Bangs from FlightAware, spokeswoman, said that 6% were cancelled over the Juneteenth weekend.

As the summer travel season heats up, it’s becoming harder for airlines to keep up with demand from travelers making up for lost time during the pandemic. Since June began, the Transportation Security Administration has been screening at least 2,000,000 passengers per day. Some U.S. airports have already seen traffic that is higher than pre-pandemic levels.

If you’re planning on flying anywhere for the Fourth of July or later in the summer, here’s what you need to know.

How to get out of a rut

Your best chance to prevent—or at least mitigate—disruption to your travel plans comes when you book your trip.

You can leave one day before you need to get there if it is absolutely necessary. “If your arrival time to your destination is time-sensitive, you should probably plan an extra day as a cushion,” says Paul Hudson, president of advocacy group

Although airlines have become more flexible about changing flights than ever before the pandemic, the increasing cost of airfare may make it tempting to book a low-cost economy-class flight. However, these tickets could be restricted.

If you can, avoid picking an airline that only has a single flight to your destination—or doesn’t have daily flights at all, as is the case with many ultra-low-fare airlines. They are also less likely to make reciprocal arrangements with other airlines than their legacy counterparts in order to assist stranded passengers.

You can avoid some chaos by booking the earliest flight possible. The system triggers a chain reaction, which means that delays can cause a chain reaction and lead to cancellations or late departures.

“Fly earlier in the day if possible because delays stack up throughout the day and there are fewer options as the day passes,” says Gary Leff, author of, a site dedicated to travel deals and loyalty programs.

If possible, fly direct and not a connecting flight. You should allow yourself more time if you need to connect with another flight. Leff advises that you allow at least one hour. Keep your luggage to a minimum. If you have to switch flights, at least you’ll have something to wear after you land.

How to handle a delayed flight

You can check the forecast to see if you are stuck in either a literal or figurative hold pattern. “People stay very oblivious to the weather. Look at what the weather is going to be,” Bangs says.

If there are storms rolling into your plane’s previous stopping point, check the status of the aircraft. If you’re flying out of Chicago, for instance, and you see that your plane is still on the ground in Atlanta 20 minutes before your scheduled departure, you have a shrinking window of time to implement a Plan B.

If your trip isn’t urgent, the path of least resistance is to rebook yourself for that airline’s first flight to your destination the following day. Many airlines will offer travelers the opportunity to rebook if disruptive weather occurs.

Here are some things to do in the event of a cancelled flight

You should book a backup flight if there is an unalterable obligation. “You can’t do it on the same airline, but you can make a reservation on your preferred airline and on ‘Airline B,’ buy a refundable ticket,” Hudson says.

Yes, it’s not a perfect solution — if your preferred flight takes off without a hitch, you could find yourself shouldering the cost of both tickets until your refund is processed.

If the flight that you were supposed to take was canceled, however you will still be able to get there and receive reimbursement for it. To get to your destination you can use your backup ticket, but it is important to cancel the original outbound flight incase it takes off. If you’re documented as a no-show, it’s probable that the airline will cancel your return ticket.

What to do if you’re already at the airport

Waiting in line—or on hold—to speak with a customer service representative is fine, but you also should use that time to try rebooking your flight yourself via the airline’s website or app. If you wait until you can speak with a real person, any available seats on the next flight—or the one after that—might already have been snapped up.

“The challenge is when things go wrong is getting help, because there may not be adequate staffing to help you, and then with planes generally full, there usually aren’t a lot of flight options to get accommodated on,” Leff says. “Don’t always be at the mercy of the airline.”

Hudson also suggests his organization’s hotline which he says can provide stranded travelers with additional customer service contacts at airlines that aren’t publicly available.

Can airlines compensate passengers for flights cancelled?

Some airlines may be required to reimburse travelers under certain circumstances. However, there are caveats and you must advocate on your behalf.

If an airline cancels your flight and you don’t want whatever rebooking option they offer you, the TSA is unambiguous: You can and should get your money refunded to you. Airlines might offer you a voucher, but you don’t have to accept it.

Hudson cautions that persistence is a virtue.

“There’s been tremendous issues about refunds,” he says, citingDepartment of Transportation statistics show that refund-related claims rose 170% from the 321 reported in the first quarter of 2019. This was a 17.3-fold jump. “There’s obviously a big problem there,” Hudson says.

It can be more difficult to deal with delays. That’s because the TSA says travelers are entitled to a refund if the airline implements a “significant” delay or schedule change—but it doesn’t define the exact parameters of what “significant” constitutes.

Policies vary, but in general, you’re more likely to have success getting compensated for meals and a place to stay if you’re stranded overnight as the result of an airline-related issue like a crew shortage. European airlines are more generous thanks to the E.U.’s Flight Compensation Regulation. If you’re stuck because of bad weather, though, domestic carriers generally don’t provide you with a hotel room or meal vouchers.

“But it never hurts to ask,” Bangs says. “Be polite and see what you can get.”

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