Know What to Expect if Your Flight Gets Delayed or Canceled

Few things ruin a trip faster than a severely delayed or canceled flight

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Few things ruin a trip faster than a severely delayed or canceled flight—and any traveler knows that trying to find alternate accommodations at the last minute can be an absolute pain.

The best way to avoid that kind of airport stress? Knowing your passenger rights in advance. But because the industry is deregulated, those rights can vary from airline to airline, and contracts of carriage aren't top of mind when booking a flight. We combed through the policies of five major U.S. air carriers to break down their policies for cancellations, delays, and service interruptions.

There are generally two categories for delays and cancellations: those caused by the airline and ones caused by uncontrollable events (force majeure). Force majeure for air travel includes weather conditions, labor shortages/strikes, and public health emergencies. Typically, airlines waive liability for force majeure schedule changes, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can't receive compensation.

If your flight was canceled by an airline and you choose to cancel your trip, that airline must offer you a refund—not a voucher—for the unused fare, bag fees, and any purchased extras per Department of Transportation rules. This policy covers even non-refundable fares, but getting a refund from an airline is a different story. If an airline refuses to honor your refund, you can file a claim with the Department of Transportation. In the case of delays, there is no federal rule that requires an airline to offer compensation.

American Airlines

In the event of a delay that would cause you to miss a connecting flight, American Airlines will rebook you on the next available flight in the same ticket class. The same policy applies for canceled flights; however, if there are no alternate flights available or you decline those arrangements, they will refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees.

However, American’s conditions of carriage state that they will only refund tickets issued by the airline itself. So if you purchased through a third-party booking site, it might be tough to get a refund from American.

With delayed flights, if your new flight doesn’t board before 11:59 p.m. local time on the scheduled arrival day, and the delay is the airline's fault, American will book you a hotel room or cover the cost of an approved stay.

JetBlue

If JetBlue cancels your flight, you can either take a different JetBlue flight to the destination, accept a travel credit, or get a refund of the remaining fare. You also can change your outbound or return flight in the event of cancellation by contacting JetBlue directly.

For schedule changes (which included delays), your options vary depending on the type of change. If the departure time is impacted by less than an hour, only flights qualifying for a fee waiver can be changed or canceled without a fee. If there's a schedule change of more than an hour but less than two hours, you can travel on a different JetBlue flight the day before, the day of, or the day after the original departure at no additional cost. You could also cancel and get a travel credit.

With changes of two hours or more, you can change your flight at no cost, can cancel for travel credit, or cancel for a refund. If your flight is changed from nonstop to connecting, you have the same options.

JetBlue also offers additional compensation for certain canceled flights and delays of three hours or more. If your flight is canceled within four hours of departure and the cancellation is the fault of the airline and there isn't another flight available within an hour, you'd receive a $50 travel credit from JetBlue, sent to your email. If the flight was canceled after scheduled departure, the credit is $100. Credits for delays start at $50 and go up to $200 if your flight is delayed by six hours or more.

Delta Air Lines

Delta will offer an alternate flight or a refund at the passenger's request in the event of a cancellation or delay of more than two hours. If the alternate flight has a seat in a lower fare class, you are entitled to a refund of the fare difference. If the next available flight only has seats in higher fare class, you could fly in that seat though Delta reserves the right to upgrade other passengers.

Delta does offer the option to travel on a different carrier or by ground transportation, but that option is at the airline's discretion, which means that a gate agent could deny this request.

If you have more than four hours of flight interruption, the airline will offer some amenities. If your delay period is from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and there is room available, Delta will pay for a night at a hotel and transportation to the airport or offer a travel voucher for up to $100. They will also arrange ground transportation to the destination airport if your flight was diverted, with some caveats. Both the final destination and the diverted airport destination must be on the list of 29 airports included in Delta's contract of carriage.

Southwest Airlines

For canceled or delayed flights Southwest will, at the passenger's request, put you on the next available flight, refund the unused portion of the fare, or offer an equivalent credit.

United Airlines

In the event of a delay, cancellation, or schedule change of more than 30 minutes, United will offer to place you on the next available flight, book you a ticket with a different carrier, or offer a refund if requested. United may also arrange ground transportation for you to your destination.

If you have a delay of more than four hours between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. United Airlines will offer lodging. If there is no lodging available, you can request a travel certificate for the equivalent cost of a room. There are some caveats to this rule, though. The delay must be caused by irregular operations defined by United in the contract of carriage, and the departure city must not be the passenger's origin point or town of residence. If the original flight is diverted to a different airport in the same city group as the original (such as Chicago-area airports), no lodging will be provided.

However, if your flight doesn't originate in the U.S. and the delay or cancellation is due to local or international laws, the above policy won't cover you.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can I get a full refund when my flight is canceled?

    While you are entitled to a refund, it is only for the remaining fare and optional fees/extras. Taxes and mandatory fees will not be refunded.

  • What happens if my flight gets canceled?

    If your flight is canceled, U.S. airlines will typically offer you a seat on the next available flight or a refund for the unused fare.

  • How long can a flight be delayed before I get compensation?

    Not all airlines offer compensation for delays but for the ones that do, flights must be more than three hours behind schedule. Compensation is often a travel credit.

  • In the event of a cancellation, will an airline book me with a different carrier?

    Not necessarily. While some airlines offer that option, it is ultimately at the carrier's discretion to book alternate flights with a different operator.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Flight Delays & Cancellations." March 4, 2020.

  2. American Airlines. "Conditions of carriage- Involuntary Refunds." Jan. 1, 2022.

  3. JetBlue Airways. "JetBlue Airways Contract of Carriage." Page 55. Sept. 24, 2021.

  4. JetBlue Airways. "Our Promises."

  5. Delta Air Lines. "Delta Domestic General Rules Tariff." Page 17. April 13, 2021.

  6. Southwest Airlines Co. "Contract of Carriage - Passenger." Page 15. Nov. 18, 2021.

  7. United Airlines. "Contract of Carriage Document Rule 24 Flight Delays/Cancellations/Aircraft Changes." Nov. 8, 2021.