While air travel is making a comeback from historic lows in 2020, passengers are still experiencing plenty of turbulence — and most of it is happening before they board.
We’re talking major flight delays and numerous cancellations. On July 14 alone, more than 6,800 flights were canceled in and out of the U.S., and 23,000-plus were delayed according to FlightAware, which tracks these stats in real time.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, the hassle has gotten so severe that the U.K.’s busiest airport is capping the number of passengers at 100,000 a day until Sept. 11, 2022, and asking airlines to sell fewer tickets, all of which is likely to result in more canceled flights.
But what rights — if any — do you have if your flight is canceled or delayed? And are there ways to avoid travel turmoil in the first place?
No Guarantees, Few Consumers Rights
Travelers often assume that purchasing an airline ticket comes with certain guarantees, like actually boarding the flight, taking off or arriving at your destination — on time. The truth is, in the United States, airlines don’t guarantee their schedules. They don’t even guarantee you a spot on the plane because it’s legal for them to sell more tickets than there are seats.
But you paid for one, so what happens when the airline overbooks? You’ll get your money back, right? Not necessarily. The only time an airline is legally bound to compensate you is if you’re involuntarily bumped from an oversold domestic flight within the United States.
On oversold flights, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines ask ticketed passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for some sort of compensation before they bump other passengers unwillingly. But there is no mandated amount the airlines are required to give passengers who volunteer their seats.
Most airlines typically start by offering volunteers a seat on a later flight, but in today’s chaotic environment that’s not a good idea. Instead, if your schedule is flexible and you can give up your seat, negotiate for a specific dollar amount.
“Do not volunteer your seat in exchange for perks or a voucher,” says Rosa Garcia, senior legal counsel at AirHelp, a company that advocates for air passenger rights. “If you do, you could be giving up your right to any additional compensation. Of course, if the airline makes a compelling enough offer, you may prefer to take it. The final decision is up to you, but weigh the pros and cons against the compensation you could be eligible to claim.”
This “additional compensation” only becomes your right if the airline bumps you unwillingly.
If you’re involuntarily bumped, the DOT requires the airline offer you a written statement describing your rights as a passenger. And the airline must, by law, provide you compensation in the form of check or cash. But you must have written confirmation from the airline that you were bumped from the flight involuntarily, so be sure to ask for it.
The amount they must give you depends on the original cost of your ticket and the length of time you were delayed. That amount can be as much as 440 percent of your one-way fare or $1,150, whichever is lower. Keep in mind, however that if the airline can rebook you and get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, you won’t be reimbursed.
If your flight is between the U.S. and an international destination, or within an international destination, the laws of that nation are slightly different.
“Many Americans don’t realize that they are protected by European laws in the case of disruptions on international flights,” Garcia says. “Instead, most Americans believe that because U.S. national law does not offer much protection for avoidable travel disruptions, they are unable to seek compensation or support.”
Under European law EC 261, Garcia explains, travelers are eligible for up to $700 per person from airlines for avoidable flight disruptions, including delays of more than three hours, cancelations or overbooked flights. Travelers can make claims for up to three years.
For example, if you are traveling from the United States to Paris on a carrier licensed in a European Union country and the flight is canceled, you are entitled to reimbursement for at least the full cost of your ticket. In some cases, you can get your money back from meals while you wait to be rerouted. The EU provides a helpful link online to see if you’re eligible.
What to Do When Your Flight’s Canceled
So now you know some of your passenger rights, but what else can you do if your flight is canceled?
Regardless of your destination, you should start rebooking your flight immediately, but don’t do it at the airport counter. “If your flight is canceled, rebook on your airline app,” says Melanie Musson, a travel expert with Clearsurance.com, an insurance education website. “Customer service representatives on the phone tend to be backed up by several hours and there’s usually a long line to speak with a representative face-to-face, so you’ll typically be able to reschedule faster online.” That means have the app downloaded on your phone ahead of time.
Also check with your credit card company. Some premium cards have travel insurance that might help you cover expenses like food and a hotel. If you booked through a third-party travel site like Expedia or Travelocity, reach out directly to them for help.
You can also try communicating with the airlines via their social media. You might be surprised at the response (if you’re nice).
Avoid the Travel Chaos Altogether
Obviously, the best thing is avoiding this madness entirely. Is that even possible? Sort of. First, don’t wait for a delay or cancellation to be announced by the airline. Instead, use a website like FlightAware so you can see an overview of flight travel in real time. Opt-in to email notifications to receive information about your flight, too. In addition, check the website of the air carrier and get their email notifications, too.
Here are some more tips to increase your odds of taking off and landing successfully this summer.
- Fly direct. If you must make a connection, leave plenty of time to change planes. A flight attendant wrote in The New York Times that three hours is necessary for layovers this summer. One-hour won’t cut it.
- Fly in the morning. These flights are less likely to be canceled. Midday and late-night flights are more likely to be canceled, says Oberon Copeland, CEO of VeryInformed.com. “This is typically a time when there are fewer passengers and less flexibility with rebooking.”
- Choose flights during the week if possible. “If you’re flexible with your travel dates, it’s best to book during the week rather than the weekend,” Copeland says.
- Watch the weather, as it will impact flights.
- Get to the airport early.
- Follow your departure airport’s website and Twitter, as they usually give useful information about long security lines.
- Check in to your flight as soon as you can, which is usually 24 hours in advance.
What’s Causing the Chaos?
So what’s behind these flight delays and cancellations anyway? There’s no clear answer, but instead a lot of finger pointing. Many airlines say there’s a pilot shortage, but the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) disagrees and says there are more than enough pilots to meet the current demand. Airlines for America, an industry trade group, blames the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a shortage of air traffic controllers.
But in a statement to USA Today July 5, the FAA denied that saying: “While there have been staffing issues for a few hours at a few facilities due to COVID-19 and other factors, there is not a system-wide air traffic controller staffing shortage.” Some blame the airlines for cutting flights and ending services to less profitable destinations. Regardless of who or what is at fault, the passengers are the ones feeling the pain.