Every traveler dreads that fateful moment when they arrive at the airport on the last day of vacation only to find that the flight home has been delayed (or worse: canceled). You don't want to wait until you're stranded at the gate to plot your plan of action. Know what to expect if your flight gets delayed or canceled so that you can maximize on those passenger rights.
You might have already learned the hard way that flight schedules are never guaranteed. Airlines cancel flights for a multitude of reasons—ranging from employee strikes to plane maintenance to the ever-changing weather—and your benefits as a passenger fluctuate accordingly.
Airlines typically don't offer compensation if a flight is delayed or canceled due to reasons beyond its control. This could include a major weather incident or an airline union strike. However, if the delay or cancellation is caused by something the airline could deem preventable, such as equipment maintenance or inadequate staffing, you might have a right to compensation.
Know Your Passenger Rights
There once was a time when airlines were required to transfer passengers to another carrier if the second one could get them to their destination sooner. That was guaranteed by the Federal Aviation Administration's Rule 240, which was undone by airline deregulation in 1978.
Now, the fate of travelers lies within each airline's contract of carriage. Because airlines have their own sets of policies these days, there is no universal rule book here. Seeking guidance on an airline website is no easy feat, either, especially when you're sifting frantically through jargon-heavy contracts from your phone at the gate.
So, do yourself a favor and download or bookmark this information on your phone or another device before you head for the airport. Make it part of your packing ritual: toothbrush, passport, airline policies—check.
Maximize Your Compensation
Even though there are no longer federal requirements that guarantee compensation in the case of a delay or cancellation, leaving customers stranded in Tampa is bad form, so airlines typically make room for passengers on the next flight.
Don't be afraid to ask for the compensation you feel is fair, after all you don't have much to lose. Call up the customer service line or go to the airline website while you wait and request a refund or an alternate flight.
Some airlines rely on passengers to ask for what they want rather than presenting them with every available option. Delta's contract, for instance, says, "Delta will (at passenger's request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment..."
Passengers can use the money they've been refunded to book on another carrier. In fact, some airlines will do the booking on their behalf. Carriers such as American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta also provide passengers with hotel accommodation, meal vouchers, and ground transportation in the case of overnight delays, according to their respective conditions of carriage.
You might just be surprised by how much the airline is willing to accommodate you, even if only to avoid negative reviews. If you've booked your ticket with miles, find out how to get miles back after canceling an award flight.
Delay and Cancellation Policies for Major U.S. Airlines
Because the specific delay and cancellations policies vary between airlines, here are the policies for some major American airlines. This is not a comprehensive list and policies are subject to change without warning.
American Airlines: If a flight is cancelled or a delay causes a passenger to miss a connection, American Airlines will re-book you on the next flight with open seats. Any checked bags will be rerouted after checking-in to the new flight. New flight information can be found online, in the app, or at a kiosk
Delta: In the case of cancellations, diversions, delays longer than 90 minutes, or delays resulting in a missed connection, passengers can request to cancel their ticket and get a partial refund. If a passenger doesn't cancel, Delta will place them on the next flight with open seats in the same fare class, though there are some exceptions where passengers will be offered seats in a lower or higher fare class. Delta may also rebook the passenger on a different carrier.
JetBlue: Passengers on flights cancelled by JetBlue will either get a refund or will be booked on the next available flight. If a flight is cancelled due to a controllable irregularity (problems within JetBlue's control) and there isn't an alternate flight available within an hour of departure, JetBlue will offer a $50 or $100 credit to passengers, depending on when the flight was cancelled. For very lengthy delays (more than 3 hours), JetBlue will give $75 to $250 credits to passengers, depending on the length of the delay.
Southwest Airlines: In the event of cancelled flights or severe delays, Southwest will either put you on the next available flight or will refund the unused portion of the fare for passengers who request it. The refund will either be in cash if your tickets was refundable or in airline credits of the ticket was nonrefundable.
United Airlines: If a Force Majeure Event (events out of the airline's control) occurs and results in significant delays or cancellations, United Airlines may re-route passengers on a different United flight, on a different carrier, with ground transportation, or will issue a refund of the unused fares. If a delay or cancellation occurs because of irregular operations by United Airlines, the airline will put passengers on the next flight to their destination. If there are no United flights available they may use a different carrier or offer ground transportation.