Having plans disrupted by a cancelled or a delayed flight is one of the worst feelings a passenger can experience. Everyone has pretty much the same reaction. Oh (expletive deleted) what do I do now. The better prepared you are, the more you know and understand about how airlines work the better chances you have of getting to your destination as close as possible to your original plans. Your options vary a lot depending on where you are going, what airline you are flying and when you find out about the cancellation.
First of all the sooner you know about a problem the better. It’s a good idea to either call or check the airline’s website the night before you leave for the airport to make sure it’s operating and on time. Often however, airlines wait as long as possible before delaying or canceling a flight. Weather conditions often change rapidly and most of the time the airlines only react long in advance for major weather events like hurricanes. More often than not, you won’t know about a delay or cancellation until you arrive at the airport and sometimes not until you’ve already boarded the plane.
So now what? First of all, don’t panic and secondly don’t get angry. Neither emotion is very productive. The airline didn’t deliberately conspire to inconvenience you. Airline personnel had nothing to do with the weather and they didn’t deliberately break the plane just to spite you. Keep calm and the more homework you did in advance the better chance you have of getting where you are going as close as possible to your original schedule.
Before you speak to anyone the more you know about your options, the more likely you’ll end up with a decent result. Don’t expect the agent you are working with to know all the options you might have. This is particularly true if you are making a connection to an international flight. If I’m flying to a new city I will always check online what options are available. If I’m flying via Dallas, I’ll check to see if the airline also offers service via one of their other hubs and also what the other flights are from my original connecting point. Agents will usually do what is easiest for them, so let’s say you were flying to Indianapolis connecting through Dallas. You were originally leaving at 9AM connecting to a flight leaving Dallas at 3PM. Your original flight is cancelled and the agent is more than likely to look at the routing and rebook you on the same city pairs, which may mean you won’t get to your original destination until 9 or 10PM. If you know that the carrier also offers service through Chicago ask if there is a better connection through Chicago.
This is even more important when making international connections. Suppose you are flying from the East Coast to San Francisco to make a connection to the Far East. Your flight has been cancelled and the next available flight will mean you will miss your connection and be delayed for 24 hours. If you know the airline you were taking from San Francisco also flies from Los Angeles and Seattle you can at least find out if you can be rebooked to either of those cities to make a flight the same day. The agent may tell you that they have rebooked you for the next day on the same flights but if you know the other cities your connecting carrier operates from you can at least ask if there are seats available today via the other cities. The agent is not deliberately trying to mess you up, it’s just more likely that she either didn’t know about other options or didn’t check.
What you do next depends on the conditions on the ground. If you find out in the terminal that a flight is cancelled and there are a hundred people in line, it’s a good idea to call the airline reservation number to see if they can help you on the phone. Same thing if you are in the back of the plane and are on board when they tell you the flight is cancelled. I have my preferred carrier’s number loaded in my cell phone so I can easily make the call. You’re still going to have to get through the line to get boarding passes but if you have already been rebooked, you at least have piece of mind knowing when you are leaving and when you are arriving. The sooner you can talk to someone the more options you are going to have. If you’re at the gate and the flight is cancelled, immediately what happens is that everyone gets in line to be rebooked. If you find yourself at the end of the line, you’re probably better off going someplace else. If you’re at an airline hub, the airline will have a customer service desk. If the line is shorter there, by all means use that instead of standing in the line at the gate. If you travel a lot it is worth the investment to join the airline’s club. The clubs and lounges are far and away the best places to get rebooked. First there are very rarely long lines and the clubs are always staffed by the most experienced and knowledgeable agents.
Your exact options are going to vary depending on why the flight was cancelled or delayed, what kind of fare you are flying on, what your status is with the airline. If the cause was the airline’s fault (equipment or crew problems) then the airline has more legal requirements than if it was caused by weather. The legal requirements have to do with lodging and meals as opposed to how quickly they have to get you to your destination. If you can’t be rebooked for the same day and the problem was the airline’s fault then the airline is required to get you food and lodging if you need it. If it is a weather delay you are on your own.
Regardless of the reason for the cancellation the airline wants to get you rebooked and on your way as soon as possible.
When you get to talk to an agent, first and foremost be polite. Yes, you’re having a bad day but so are they. They would much rather have seen your flight off and gone into the staff lounge for a cup of coffee. Dealing with 200 upset passengers in no one’s idea of a good time. More than anything else this person you are talking to is the only one that has the power to help you. Be nice and polite and empathize with them and you’re much more likely to get them to help you. Yell and scream and you might well find yourself booked on four connections via Upper Slobovia.
If the airline has their act together you might find they have already rebooked you. Often they know a flight is going to be cancelled for some time before they announce it and have already worked out how to accommodate most of the passengers. This is when doing your homework really pays off. If you know what the other options are and they give you one of those take it. There is no point in trying to get a better routing just to save 30 minutes. If however they’ve booked you on a nonstop flight leaving in six hours and you know there is a flight to a city with connecting flights in an hour, politely say something like “Gee, any change of getting on that flight to Chicago and connecting through there?” Remember to smile and be polite when you ask. Maybe there are seats, maybe there aren’t but I’ve never had an agent that wouldn’t at least check for me.
If you’ve gotten a particularly lousy reroute and there is no way to get to your original destination in a timely manner you might want to consider asking about alternative airports. Sometimes agents realize the proximity of different airports and sometimes they don’t. This is when you need to weigh your alternatives and work out the lesser of two evils. For example I was once booked on a flight from Austin, Texas to San Francisco connecting through Los Angeles. The flight from Austin was delayed so I was going to miss my connection. It meant that I’d either have to spend the night in Austin or LA. The delays were due to thunderstorms in Austin. There was a nonstop flight to San Jose that was going to depart that evening delayed by a couple of hours. I live about 5 miles from San Francisco airport and 40 from San Jose, it meant more hassle when I got back but it was the difference between sleeping in my own bed and spending another night on the road. The agent hadn’t considered how close the two airports were to each other and if I hadn’t asked they would have never offered.
One of the open secrets about airlines is that not all passengers are equal. Passengers are accommodated not on a first come first serve basis but on a combination of what class of service you are flying, how much you paid for the ticket and what your status is with the airline. First class passengers are accommodated first, then full fare coach passengers, then the airlines high mileage flyers based on how many miles they fly in the year. If you’re a regular passenger and you get passed over for a seat this can be upsetting but it’s not different than any other business and being angry or resentful about is counterproductive.
One of the best ways to avoid having to deal with cancellations and delays is to try and schedule yourself in such a way that you minimize the possibility of problems. It’s always a good idea to assume something is going to wrong. If you have to be someplace for something important, allow a reasonable amount of time for inevitable delays. If you need to be somewhere at 2PM, don’t schedule yourself on a flight arriving at 1. Always allow a certain amount of slack time. If all goes perfectly you’ll have time to relax, if there are delays you have some time built in to deal with them.
Try to leave earlier in the day. What tends to happen, especially if there are weather delays is that problems tend to mount as the day goes on. The early flights may be delayed several hours but as the delays pile up, the airline may be forced to cancel the later flights. Also be aware of connecting points. Some places are better to connect in than others. There are no guarantees on this one though. Chicago can face a lot of weather delays in winter but because it is such a busy airport, they get it open as soon as possible after a storm.
Some carriers are better than others. It’s beyond the scope of this article to single out specific carriers on this but some may have ten flights between two cities in a six hour period and will routinely cancel tow or three of them depending on the load factors. It’s a policy I don’t happen to like and will usually only mean a delay of an hour or so, but when it happens to you , it’s very annoying. If there are very serious weather delays the major carriers are probably better options than the discounters. Major carriers have reciprocal agreements with each other which means they have a lot more options in finding you seats. The discount carriers usually will only accommodate you on their own flights so if the weather delay occurs at a very busy time it may mean a much longer wait for a flight.
So when that delay or cancellation happens, be prepared, be patient, and most importantly try to relax. The more you travel the more you have to realize that delays are inevitable. It’s important to learn to accept it and deal with it. If you don’t you’re going to self destruct, especially if you travel a lot. Like everything in life the more you know the better you will do.