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What to Do if Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed

Knowing what your rights are and what airlines typically offer to keep customers happy can help get you on your way sooner.

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The odds of encountering turbulence in your travel plans when you’re flying are probably lower than you think: In the first 10 months of 2017, 18.4% of domestic airline flights were delayed on departure, and 1.6% were canceled, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But when you’re the unlucky passenger stranded at the gate with no plane in sight, knowing what your rights are and what airlines typically offer to keep customers happy can help get you on your way sooner.

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How airlines (might) help. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to compensate passengers only when they’re bumped from an oversold flight (see Know Your Rights on Flights). Federal rules also govern how long planes can linger on the tarmac before an airline has to feed the passengers or let them off. Rules for all other kinds of delays and cancellations are spelled out in the carrier’s contract of carriage.

For disruptions that airlines consider beyond their control—which can include bad weather, fuel shortages and labor disputes—the airlines typically offer you a seat on the next available flight or, depending on how long the delay is, a refund. For problems considered within their control—in­cluding crew shortages and maintenance issues—you’ll fare better. For example, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue both provide credit for future flights in case of a long delay. (JetBlue passengers who experience a delay of six hours or more get a $250 credit.) Some airlines might arrange ground transportation as an alternative to flying. Alaska, American, Delta, Spirit and United, among others, may comp one night at a hotel—typically when an overnight holdup lasts at least four hours. Food and beverage vouchers may also be part of the deal. In general, low-cost carriers offer fewer amenities.

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Being assertive and resourceful will help speed up the process as well. “Rather than asking the gate agent, ‘What will you do for me?’ it’s better to have a solution in mind,” says Ed Perkins, contributing editor at SmarterTravel.com. For example, airlines generally rebook you on the next available flight, but some airlines may agree to transfer your ticket to another carrier, so pull out your smartphone and look up alternate routes.

While waiting in line to speak with an agent, call the customer service number (or a phone line reserved for loyalty program members, if you are one) and simultaneously reach out to the airline’s social media team to get first crack at an empty seat. It’s always best to resolve the problem while it’s happening rather than requesting a voucher or other compensation by complaining after the fact. Even if an airline is stingy with perks, you may still be able to negotiate, say, loyalty-program miles by asking for them, says Paul Hudson, president of consumer organization Flyers Rights.

If you’re rerouted on a new flight, be aware that many airlines count certain nearby airports as the same destination. And if a sig­nificant delay (as defined by the airline) or cancellation would upend your trip completely and you decide to forgo rebooking, you can ask for an “involuntary refund” of the unused portion of your ticket, even for nonrefundable tickets. Don’t expect the airline to tell you about this option, says Hudson. You may have to ask to speak with a super­visor to discuss an involuntary refund.

Airlines have become more flexible about waiving change fees for customers when bad weather is forecast, says Anne McDermott, editor of FareCompare.com. You may not pay a difference in fare, either. But your window to reschedule is usually short.

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If you have faced unfriendly skies in the past 12 months, an app called Service (www.getservice.com) may help. It scans your in-box for past flight delays or cancellations and submits claims for “good will” compensation on your behalf, typically in the form of vouchers or miles. The app is free, but you’ll fork over a 30% cut of any compensation.