According to the Federal Aviation Administration, weather delays at the New York City area's three biggest airports – Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy are the highest in the country, with nearly 60,000 delays of 15 minutes or more in 2013. The other top delay airports are in Chicago O'Hare and Midway, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta.
But weather alone does not necessarily lead to huge delays, says the FAA.
If an airport has a lot of excess capacity, delayed flights can be shifted to non-weather times without affecting the system. But airports with the most weather delays also tend to operate very near capacity for significant parts of the day, meaning that delayed flights may have to wait hours to land or depart.
If your flight is canceled due to weather events — including tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, fog and floods, to name a few — airlines have policies in place to accommodate travelers. The first thing you must know is that you will not receive any compensation or sleeping accommodations from the airline for the cancellation since it was what is considered an Act of God outside the carrier's control. And when weather events happen, there are usually hundreds of flights that are affected, so you're not alone.
So what are your rights? Check directly with your airline, but here are some overall policies:
- Flexible changes to tickets: airlines will generally waive ticket change fees and allow flights to be rebooked within up to seven days from the originally scheduled date.
- Change your ticket completely: airlines may allow you to apply the full value of your unused ticket toward the purchase of a flight to a different destination.
- Change ticket without penalties: carriers may allow a one-time change without fees if you remain on the same itinerary.
- Refunds and partial refunds: if the weather is really bad and flight schedules are a mess, airlines may offer to refund your unused ticket and sometimes even the unused portion of your ticket if you have begun travel.
How can you best handle weather-related cancellations?
- Call ahead or check online before you go to the airport. If the roads are treacherous, the runways will be too.
- Sign up for an airline's flight status messaging service for the very latest news on your travel. Also sign up for something like Flight Aware, a website and app that offers real-time flight tracking.
- Get the Next Flight app on your smartphone. This app allows you to search for flights on other airlines in case your flight is canceled. When you get an agent on the phone or at the airport, you can give them the available flight numbers to possibly be put on another flight.
- Be sure and bookmark this list of airline phone numbers compiled by travel expert Johnny Jet to beat the crowd of those trying to rebook flights. If you are at the airport when your flight cancels, you can line up to see a gate agent or at the ticket counter, but skip the line, whip out your smartphone and call the airline directly or go to its website to rebook your flight.
- It's important to know your rights. Most airlines have a Contract of Carriage that outlines what passengers' rights are in case of things including delays and cancellations. Check out this handy list compiled by Airfarewatchdog with links to the contract for major U.S. and international carriers.
- If you are at the airport when your flight cancels, check both departure and arrival screens. Chances are if flights later than yours are not operating, a later rebooked flight on the same day may end up canceling. Checking the arrival board will give you an idea of whether enough airplanes are coming in to actually turn around and operate as another flight.
- If you are at the airport when your flight cancels, and you are a connecting passenger, ask the gate agent if you should head to the ticket counter or if there is a desk for connecting passengers. Although not obligated, many airlines will take care of passengers who are in transit, particularly if the weather delays/cancellations were not foreseen or advised of when you began your journey.
- Checking the weather at your destination may give you an indication of whether a flight can even fly.
What are your options if you're stuck on a plane during a weather delay?
The U.S. Department of Transportation's consumer rules prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from allowing an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
Airlines are required to provide travelers with adequate food and potable drinking water within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.