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What do you do when your flight is cancelled?
April 12, 2006 6:49 PM   Subscribe

What do you expect when your flight is cancelled? What is the airline's responsibility, and has anyone found a way to encourage the airlines to help you get home sooner?

I am generally a cooperative traveler, and I make a point of not getting ugly with service people. Recently, I was forced to stay over night at the airline's hub, a city about 5 hours drive from my destination. My connection had actually been canceled about the time I left my home airport. They claimed to pay half of my hotel, but I am pretty sure I just got the corporate rate of $69. (It was only a crappy Quality Inn) The airline booked me on an afternoon flight the next day, and neglected to put me on stand-by for the two morning flights.

Generally, I have found just being reasonable and pleasant helps a great deal, but this airline seemed to have real contempt for those of us in chattle class. It was actually the first time I felt like a business was spitting in my face, and I'm 40.

I don't want to turn this into a horror story thread. Are any airlines particularly good in these situations? Is there a good way to get what you want without being nasty? I'd appreciate any advice. I'll be traveling more and more frequently.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total)
 
I don't know about particularly good, but I can tell you that US Airways is particularly bad. I'll spare the bitch fest, except to say it included two consecutive days of cancelled flights, three aircraft pulled from service due to maintenance issues, and no compensation whatsoever nor any particular concern for their stranded passengers.

My general tactic with airlines (I travel several times per year for work) is to be firm but polite. I made the mistake of dropping the f-bomb once, and was duly rewarded for my transgression. If the person at the counter can't help you, work your way up the food chain.

But what really helps is to buy your ticket from a travel agent who can actually help you when things go bad. When you pay the discount rate you are flying without a safety net. When you pay the commission, part of what you are paying for is to have an advocate when things go bad.
posted by Lokheed at 6:59 PM on April 12, 2006


This hits home as my flight on American Eagle was cancelled last night without explanation, leaving me stranded at DFW. The airline was only offering next-morning flights out. I pitched in with a group of other people and rented a car to get to our destination. Maybe I have a biased sample here but I intend to avoid American for all further business travel.
posted by hodyoaten at 7:04 PM on April 12, 2006


I would expect them to pay for the hotel entirely, if they force you to stay overnight due to their own fault.
posted by smackfu at 7:05 PM on April 12, 2006


I think I'm just coming to terms with how hierarchical airlines are. I did buy a budget ticket this time, and I actually felt like NW was viewing me as expendible.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:07 PM on April 12, 2006


I had a horrific experience a few years ago flying Delta from Hartford to Oakland via Atlanta. My flight to Atlanta got delayed because of rain, and then my connection in Atlanta left without me, except for whatever reason, the clerks at the front claimed I was on that Oakland flight (they checked in someone else in my name). Anyway, I immediately got on the phone with Delta directly and stood in line to get rebooked. They tried to tell me to wait until the next day and I refused. The desk people weren't able to find a flight for me until I physically handed my cell phone to them and had them talk directly to the people from Delta.

So yes, be polite and firm and stand your ground. No f-bombs, and always call the 1-800 # for your airline and work both the desk and the number at the same time. It might also help to be familiar with how many flights to your destination your airlines of choice are taking too.
posted by cajo at 7:08 PM on April 12, 2006


gesamtkunstwerk - depending on the price of your ticket, the length of your flight, the type of aircraft, and the weight of you and your baggage, you might very well be expendable.
posted by nathan_teske at 7:29 PM on April 12, 2006


I travel frequently for business. If stranded overnight, I expect a hotel voucher, a breakfast meal ticket, and for the reservation staff to put me on stand-by for the earliest possible flight out the next day. That's what happened the last time my flight was cancelled, with Southwestern. Personally, I think you got hosed.

I've traveled business class with all the major carriers and many of the smaller ones, and of them all, the only two I have been consistently satisfied with are Southwestern and Midwest. I particularly recommend Midwest. They have truly excellent customer service and I've never been stranded overnight by them.) I've been delayed an hour or two, but that's it; they are always quick to get me another flight, with another carrier if necessary. (As a bonus, they have large and very comfortable leather seats, only two per row.) In my experience, they are just far and away the most comfortable and reliable for business trips, and are always my first choice for personal travel as well.
posted by melissa may at 7:41 PM on April 12, 2006


No US airline is particularly good in this situation. You've already got the strategy to make the best of the situation; be nice to the staff you're talking to. They often have some discretion and want to be helpful if you're direct and pleasant. The other way to help yourself is to have status in the frequent flyer club, and/or be on a more expensive ticket.
posted by Nelson at 7:41 PM on April 12, 2006


Please understand that all the carriers are routinely cancelling non-full flights these days. It's not maintenance issues, it's that they didn't sell enough seats.

On a particular leg between two major cities that I pay close attention to, carrier X runs about ten flights per day. If they aren't full, one of the earlier flights gets cancelled and the passengers all get bumped back, filling up all the rest of the flights. If asked, the terminal staff always says "maintenance" or "weather", but the kicker is, I've seen their terminals and there's no indication of why a flight was cancelled. They're just making it up. Weather on a completely calm day? Always have maintenance issues when flights aren't full? Uh-huh.

Most days, one of those flights is cancelled. MOST DAYS. I suspect they cancel fewer flights on legs which have fewer flights scheduled - if there's only one flight a day, they don't cancel it. They DO want you to get where you're going, in a certain abstract sense of the word "want".

Nor are they doing much for passengers, except the super-ultra-elite kind. All I can suggest is avoid carriers with a high rate of cancellations.
posted by jellicle at 8:01 PM on April 12, 2006


I felt hosed too, MM, particularly since I was a frequent flyer who had forgotten his ff card, and was going to submit my stubs at a later date. It's all I can do to not cut my card up and mail it back to them. I will try to fly Midwest from now on. I "saved" $90 not flying with them this time, and am inclined to pay extra in the future.

I guess the question I was really asking was about vouchers. I understand that things happen in air travel. I just felt cheated that they offered so little, seeing that I missed almost a third of my weekend away, and felt that they offered substandard service. I didn't know how to approach the gate agents. "This isn't good enough? "Are you high?-- I didn't pay three hundred and fifty bucks to be offered a blanket in a terminal"

I am beginning to think that nathan might be right-- a cheap last minute fare is basically asking to be hosed.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2006


As a Milwaukee resident, I highly second the recommendation that you fly Midwest. (Highly second? Is that logical?) They are good people, the seats are wide, and the chocolate chip cookies are tasty. I've never had a bad flight with them.

Now, as for problems with other airlines:

Rule number one: get names and take notes. Get the name of the person who tells you that the flight is cancelled, get the name of the person who puts you on your next flight. Note the flight schedule and that you were never offered standby. Find out what the corporate rate of your hotel room was and figure out if they actually paid half of it (Northwest? I fly them, know their hubs, and suspect that they cheated you on the room rate, too.) Get the name of the person who says they're paying half.

Then write a letter. Write a long and detailed letter. Give them as much information as humanly possible. Be articulate and specific in your complaints. Mention how frequently you travel and how disinclined you are to fly with them again.

In a sense, you're expendable. But in a sense, no one's making much money in this industry. They could use your business.

As for chattel class? Well, yeah. I wish I'd taken down the name of the America West stewardess who told me there were no pillows and blankets on the flight when I'd seen them as I walked past the (completely empty) first class cabin to use the restroom. Peons don't merit precious pillows - or the truth.
posted by anjamu at 8:34 PM on April 12, 2006


I should have been clearer -- in the Southwestern situation, I got a voucher covering the total cost of the stay. I was polite, of course, but didn't do anything special -- just went to the counter, and when told there were no flights out, informed them that I didn't have anywhere to stay and simply asked them what they could do for me. Proceed to free room and voucher. I didn't have to flash an ff card or do anything special to receive this treatment. Frankly, I assumed at the time it was standard.

I agree that booking cheap fares often results in getting what you pay for. Where I work, I get to book my own flights, and although they do ask for us to look for the best fares, they also provide leeway for factors like extensive layovers and carrier reputation. If you've been given that sort of discretion, then yes, avoid the cheapest of the cheap fares whenever possible. Like others have noted, there's just too great a potential for disaster, and by the time your company has paid you for your extra travel and per diem, they've lost whatever money you originally saved or more.
posted by melissa may at 8:42 PM on April 12, 2006


Northwest? Yeah, they suck. My horror story (self-link). At least they did pay for my hotel, though. But really, few of them are really any better. Your best bet is to get a direct flight to where you're going and fly whatever airline offers it, that gives them less opportunity to screw up your connections and lose your luggage.
posted by kindall at 9:44 PM on April 12, 2006


According to this source, Northwest is one of the more generous airlines with old 'rule 240' type benefits. However, when delays are beyond an airline's control, as with weather-related issues, all one can hope for is some expression of empathy and to be rebooked as efficiently as possible.
posted by namret at 11:03 PM on April 12, 2006


What do you expect when your flight is cancelled?

It depends on the reason. If it is a reason the airline considers outside its control (for example, bad weather on the East Coast meaning your plane never got to the west coast to pick you up), then not very much. A voucher for a hotel room at a "distressed traveller" rate is the best you can get. And standby priority on all the next flights.

If the reason is the airline's fault (e.g. mechanical problems), then I would expect to be placed on the next flight out on any airline, and hotels and food paid for on a newly-required overnight stay.

I expect to be treated better if I have elite status on the airline, and if I bought a more expensive ticket (say, a Y/B fare class).

What is the airline's responsibility, and has anyone found a way to encourage the airlines to help you get home sooner?

Assuming you are in the U.S., the airline's responsibility is outlined in its contract of carriage and customer charter. Read them. You might bring them with you (maybe download them to your laptop or PDA so you'll always have them handy).

Many airlines have timetables on the web that can be downloaded to your laptop or PDA. These can be quite useful during irregular ops, and can be used to suggest alternative plans. So can calling the airline's reservation number—they might be a little less stressed than the people at the airport and willing to give you more information. It would also behoove you to figure out which flights are available on other airlines.

If you feel the airline reps was particularly disrespectful to you then you should send their customer relations people an e-mail.
posted by grouse at 12:14 AM on April 13, 2006


Cajo has the key here. Get on a cell phone as soon as you have a problem, before you even make it to the counter. You can often get more timely information this way, too.

Other tricks are to always fly direct when possible, and if you have to connect, make sure it isn't on the last flight out. And be as nice as possible to the person at the counter - they probably don't want to screw you over, and the most understanding people are usually the frequent travellers. Not so coincidentally, the frequent travellers usually get the best resolution to the problem..
posted by bh at 12:31 AM on April 13, 2006


Here's a little summary of your rights if delayed in Europe.
posted by biffa at 2:52 AM on April 13, 2006


I think it depends on the reason for the cancellation. When I was flying... United, I think, years ago I had a flight that was cancelled because I had stupidly planned a flight that passed through Chicago O'Hare and I'm pretty sure planes never enter or leave Chicago O'Hare. It is a black hole of air travel. This one was cancelled due to weather problems so they gave us a 1/2 off voucher for some crappy hotel a million miles away in the suburbs.

On the other hand, I was flying Delta last month and when my flight was cancelled they automatically scheduled me on another flight. When I argued that flying through Atlanta to get from Cincinnati to Newark wasn't going to work for me, they pretty easily changed the replacement flight to one that went through La Guardia.

I suspect that the difference isn't that Delta's so much better than United, but that they cancelled the flight themselves, whereas the other one counted as an 'act of god'.
posted by srah at 4:04 AM on April 13, 2006


I've had two decent experiences with US Airways. One cancelled flight resulted in a hour-and-a-half cab ride on their dollar to the airport in the next state - inconvenient, but got me to my destination in time. Another cancelled flight got me scheduled quickly on another flight and two vouchers for later air travel. I didn't have to do much complaining on either occasion, but, as has been previously mentioned, stayed calm and direct.
posted by youarenothere at 5:29 AM on April 13, 2006


Actually, I had good luck with Northwest. My first time flying a few years ago I ended up stuck in an airport farther away from home than when I started due to weather. They put me and a few fellow passengers up in a hotel, and loaded me up with food vouchers. I was young and visibly upset (in a stressed-and-sad way, not in a screaming-at-the-NW-employees way) so I'd say that had something to do with it, but there were several other passengers they did it for as well.
They put me on a flight out first thing in the morning. My next layover was long but I had the important task of using up the pile of vouchers, so I can't say I was especially bothered by it.
posted by smt at 5:31 AM on April 13, 2006


I have to say, the last time this happened to me, I was very assertive (but not rude), and was put on a flight with another airline. I was flying home to NYC from Memphis, and when I got to the airport at 4pm for my 5pm flight, there was already a huge line. My US Airways connection was not going out, and they had no other flights that day. They were rebooking everyone for the next day, and giving stranded folks a voucher for a hotel and dinner.

When it was my turn, I explained that I wanted to get back to NYC that night and could fly into any of the three airports. At first, they told me that they couldn't transfer my ticket because it was a frequent flier ticket. Then I reminded them that I HAD a frequent flier ticket because I was a VERY GOOD CUSTOMER. And I would like to continue being a good customer. Suddenly I was on a non-stop flight with Delta that got me home earlier than my original flight.
posted by kimdog at 7:20 AM on April 13, 2006


Your best success in this is to get some understanding from the people at the airport, working your way up the "food chain," as others wrote, and if that is unsatisfactory, take it to them in writing afterwards. Written letters are better than email. Where possible, they should be sent on your company's letterhead in clear and calm language, explaining what happened, why you're displeased, what you expect them to do about it and that you'll be taking your and your company's business elsewhere if the matter is not resolved.

If anyone was incredibly helpful and did their job well, do make sure to include that as well - no one ever writes with compliments, and it can improve their reaction to otherwise cranky customers.

Please understand that all the carriers are routinely cancelling non-full flights these days. It's not maintenance issues, it's that they didn't sell enough seats - No way. I've been flying more than I ever wanted to this year, and at least 4 or 5 of those flights were severely undersold and still flew. None of these flights were cancelled, even the international or cross-country flights where I had the entire row of a 777 or 767 to myself.
posted by whatzit at 7:36 AM on April 13, 2006


I'm glad whatzit caught this:

Please understand that all the carriers are routinely cancelling non-full flights these days. It's not maintenance issues, it's that they didn't sell enough seats.

Just not true. An airline will send out a totally empty flight, because they have planned their operations to not have a bunch of idle planes. Consequently they need the plane at ORD now to get to BUF even if it's empty, because otherwise there will be no plane for the BUF passengers!

I've seen their terminals and there's no indication of why a flight was cancelled. They're just making it up. Weather on a completely calm day?

Again, you are forgetting that the whole system is connected. If your plane can't leave ORD due to snowstorms there, you aren't going to have a plane in BUF, even if it's a clear day. If your flight crew was delayed sufficiently by the weather thousands of miles away and now they can no longer legally fly because they have been working too long, the problem is still due to "weather" according to the airline.

The person making something up here isn't the gate agent.
posted by grouse at 7:59 AM on April 13, 2006


Thanks for the advice, all. I really did learn a lot. And I agree about taking note of who is naughty and who is nice. I had an Air Canada employee save my bacon once, and I wasn't even flying that airline. I still wish I'd taken her name. Anyway, the only thing worse than a trip is a bad job where you take flack for weather, management and time zones.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:54 PM on April 13, 2006


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