11 Things You Need to Know Before Your Flight is Canceled

Photo Credit: Bill Wilt

Photo Credit: Bill Wilt

It’s 1 a.m. when we know for sure that the plane isn’t going to take off. Not tonight. We’ve been sitting on the runway for hours, and after a maintenance problem that turned out to be nothing and the jet refueling guys that never showed, we’re heading back to the gate.

The bureaucratic tap dance we then endure -- rebooking our flight (that won’t leave until the next afternoon), attempting to locate our luggage (unsuccessfully), trying to book an airport hotel (also unsuccessfully) -- leaves us grumpy. After the umpteenth frustrating customer service encounter, I start to get slightly hysterical. Despite making my living as a travel expert, it turns out I am not always a good traveler.

Countless travelers have found themselves in just this situation and can well relate to the misery. Mere hours after falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle in Costa Rica, somehow, inexplicably, my husband and I find ourselves sleeping in Miami International Airport under harsh fluorescent lights. (We would have preferred to crash in a South Beach hotel overlooking the ocean, but alas, it wasn't in the budget.) He is wearing his Panama hat with a macaw feather tucked in the brim, a souvenir from our trip. I am wearing a Miami sweatshirt that I bought in a gift shop, because my spaghetti strap maxi dress isn’t enough to combat the airport chill. After hours of travel -- unwashed, bleary-eyed, and now sprawled across the airport chairs like hobos -- we must look like quite the pair.

Upon finally arriving back in New York City, I decide to investigate just how often things go so awry -- and what, if anything, passengers can do to prepare themselves. I want to know everything -- which airlines are the worst, which airports are the worst, what compensation customers can expect, and what they’re legally entitled to. Of course travel won’t always go smoothly, but it’s always possible to increase your odds that it will, and to respond intelligently when it doesn’t. The result of my findings, I hope, will be your ultimate survival guide to a delayed or canceled flight.

1. Envoy and Spirit Airlines Are Actually the Worst.

Spirit Airlines has a bad rap that is well-deserved.
Spirit Airlines has a bad rap that is well-deserved.

The fact that cut-rate carrier Spirit Airlines doesn't have a great track record when it comes to flight cancelations and delays should come as no surprise. Customers should expect to pay for those cheap fares in other ways -- one of which is the much higher than average chance of not arriving to their destination on time, or at all. In June, only 49.9 percent of the airline's overall reported flight operations arrived on time, according to the August 2015 Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). And 4.9 percent of its operations were canceled altogether -- a number surpassed only by Envoy, a regional affiliate of American Airlines, which had 5.2 percent of operations canceled. 

"Consumers can limit their exposure to cancelled and delayed flights by avoiding flying on regional jets, which tend to be canceled more often than larger planes," George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says. 

I flew American Airlines, which had 1.1 percent of operations canceled. For on-time flights, American came in eighth out of the 12 airlines ranked in the report -- one ahead of United.

2. Hawaiian, Alaska, and Delta Airlines Are the Best.

Percentage of flight operations canceled by carrier in June, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Transporation
Percentage of flight operations canceled by carrier in June, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Transporation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the carriers with the fewest cancellations in June were also the carriers with the most on-time flights. For on-time flights, Hawaiian Airlines came in first, followed by Alaska and the once-hated (by me, at least) but now much-improved Delta. (Forbes writer Ken Krogue also noticed the airline's recent improvements, and I distinctly remember seeing a subway ad a few years ago from its "Keep Climbing" campaign declaring that "The Only Way Up is Up," which turned out to be an accurate assessment of the airline's trajectory.) Though the DOT hasn't released July data yet, Investopedia reported July data from Flight View showing that Delta moved up in July to take first place for on-time flights. 

"As we show in our airline performance rankings, some airlines are better at on-time performance (notably, lately, Delta), and at not overbooking (JetBlue, for example)," Hobica says. "Consumers concerned about the small chance they’ll be bumped -- and it is a small chance -- should book on airlines that perform better."

In terms of cancelled flights in June, Alaska had .4 percent, Delta .3 percent, and Hawaiian just .1 percent.

3. It Might Be Wise to Avoid a Layover in Chicago O'Hare.

Chicago O'Hare International Airport, courtesy of Nicola, Flickr

Chicago O'Hare International Airport, courtesy of Nicola, Flickr

Chicago O'Hare International Airport is one of the country's busiest airports -- and it had one of the worst track records in June for on-time arriving and departing flights, according to the DOT report. Only 66.2 percent of arriving flights were on time, and 63.8 percent of departing flights. Compare that to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, an even busier airport that managed to have 80.1 percent of flights arrive on time and 76.2 percent depart on time, and it's easy to see that Chicago's numbers aren't too great. 

4. Airlines Are Doing a Worse Job of Making Customers Happy This Year.

Courtesy of Mark Crossfield, Flickr

Courtesy of Mark Crossfield, Flickr

The DOT announced Tuesday that consumer complaints filed with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division this year have risen significantly -- specifically, they're up 20.3 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the first six months of last year. So if you've become accustomed to a smooth flying experience, it may be time to get ready for a bumpy ride. 

5. You Are Entitled to Compensation If You are Bumped from a Flight.

If you are bumped from a flight involuntarily due to overbooking, the airline owes you money, even if they rebook you on a later flight. If your rebooked flight arrives at your destination one to two hours later, the airline still owes you an amount equal to 200 percent of your one-way fare (with a $650 maximum), according to DOT rules. If you get to your destination more than two hours later (or more than four hours later for international flights), you are entitled to 400 percent of the price of your one-way fare, up to $1,300.  

6. But Not if Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled.

Airlines don't have to put you up for the night if your flight is canceled, and many choose not to. Photo courtesy of Kevin Prichard Photography, Flickr

Airlines don't have to put you up for the night if your flight is canceled, and many choose not to. Photo courtesy of Kevin Prichard Photography, Flickr

That's right -- if your flight is delayed or canceled, the airline owes you squat, as long as they are rebooking you on the next available flight. (If they don't or can't, you should be able to get a refund.) Some may choose to provide food vouchers or hotel accommodation, but it's entirely at their discretion. When my American Airlines flight was cancelled, we did get food vouchers but not a hotel voucher. 

Many airlines have set policies in place that can be found on their websites; United, for example, says it may offer free hotel accommodations for delays that exceed four hours between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. if the delay or cancelation was within its control. American Airlines also claims it will provide reasonable overnight accommodations on domestic flights (subject to availability) if the cancellation was within its control, but there's a fair amount of wiggle room in these policies. The cause for our cancellation apparently did not qualify; the pilots told us they were heading back to the gate because they'd reached the end of their duty time before the jet was able to be refueled. 

7. Most Flights Are Delayed Because of a Late-Arriving Aircraft.

Less than one percent of flights in June were delayed because of extreme weather; far more were delayed because of operational failures by the airline.
Less than one percent of flights in June were delayed because of extreme weather; far more were delayed because of operational failures by the airline.

As noted, the cause of the delay is an important factor in what compensation the airline might offer you. So it's a good idea to understand what causes them most often. According to the DOT report, an average of 74.8 percent of flights were on time in June, 8.8 percent suffered a delay to a late-arriving aircraft, 7 percent were delayed because of an air carrier delay (read: something that was the airline's fault, such as maintenance or crew problems), and 6.3 percent were due to a National Aviation system delay (something like heavy traffic volume at the airport or another airport operation issue). Just .9% were due to an extreme weather delay.

8. Your Domestic Flight Shouldn't Get Stuck on the Tarmac for More than Three Hours.

If it is delayed longer than that, expect to get sent back to the gate. Photo courtesy of Sgt Pete Mobbs RAF/MOD

If it is delayed longer than that, expect to get sent back to the gate. Photo courtesy of Sgt Pete Mobbs RAF/MOD

Unless the pilot deems there is a security concern, or air traffic control believes that returning to the gate would significantly disrupt operations, your domestic flight is not allowed to stay on the tarmac for more than three hours. And the flight attendants must provide you with food and water after two. (On my flight, when we finally got water and granola bars after being stuck on the tarmac for what felt like far more than two hours, we thought the flight attendants were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; turns out they legally had to.) And yes, you must be allowed to use the bathrooms.

9. Avoid Checking a Bag if You Possibly Can, Especially on Envoy.

Photo courtesy of Jarcje, Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Jarcje, Wikimedia Commons

After our flight fiasco, we didn't see our bags again for several days. We got them eventually, but it's good to know that some airline carriers have a better track record with your baggage than others. Unsurprisingly, good ole Envoy Air has the worst record with mishandled bags in June, with 10.5 reports per 1,000 passengers ("mishandling" meaning bags that were lost, delayed, damaged, or pilfered). American Airlines was fourth worst, with 4.3 reports per 1,000 passengers.  

10. If Your Bags Are Permanently Lost, You Will Get Compensated -- But Expect It to Take a While.

Photo courtesy of Pradeepkulasekaran

Photo courtesy of Pradeepkulasekaran

If the airline loses your bag, they do have to compensate you, but expect to haggle over the value of your goods and wait four weeks to three months to get paid. If the airline deems a passenger claim exaggerated they may deny it altogether. Receipts will help you prove the value of your lost belongings. 

11. Don't Just Wait in Line at the Airport -- Call Customer Service, Too.

Photo courtesy of Victorgrigas

Photo courtesy of Victorgrigas

After the airline announced that our flight was canceled, there was a mad gallop to the customer service desk. Smart passengers didn't just wait in line to rebook their flights -- they also called the airline customer service number. This will almost always result in quicker service, and as you are competing against the other passengers to rebook the best remaining flights, time is of the essence. You may not want to step out of the line altogether, though; if there are food or hotel vouchers on offer, you can't get those over the phone. 

Correction: As pointed out by a commenter, The American Airlines Conditions of Carriage does state that the airline will provide reasonable overnight accommodations subject to availability for domestic flights, when the cause for the delay was within the airline's control; the article has been updated to reflect this. 

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