Given the havoc Hurricane Irene is causing, I thought it would be helpful to talk about how to handle cancelled flights. The hardest cancelled flight I ever had to deal with was back in the late 90s when an ice storm hit the South on December 23rd. Almost every airport in the South was shut down. And unfortunately, I was in the Mississippi and was trying to fly back up North to visit family. To make matters worse, my husband (boyfriend at the time) was coming with me, but we were flying out of different airports. I was flying out of Jackson and he was flying out of the incredibly small Pine Belt airport (it is a one or two gate airport). I was visiting him in MS (I was living in Puerto Rico at the time), so we only had one car.
We watched the news carefully and knew what was coming. But the morning of our flights, our flights were still listed as on time. So he drove me up to Jackson for my flight and headed back down to Pine Belt for his. Now this was in the days before we had cell phones so we had no idea what the other person was doing. It turned out his flight got cancelled and they offered to bus them down to New Orleans (the only airport in the South that was still open) to catch a flight out.
My flight on the other hand wasn’t cancelled right away. I could see them de-icing the plane and the flight just kept getting delayed. I had a bad feeling and didn’t think my flight was going to go out. So I went up to the main counter and asked if they could get me on another flight. They explained the flight wasn’t cancelled and tried to convince me not to change. But I politely asked them to see if they could switch me. They had 1 seat left on a flight to New Orleans and asked me if I wanted to go on that. Of course I said I did. (I did not have to pay anything for this change.) This switch changed the airlines I was flying. So when I got to New Orleans, I had to get my get my bags from baggage claim and check in with the new airline. And when I got to the check-in line, my boyfriend was there in line! We were on the same flight from New Orleans to NJ.
Now when you’re facing big cancellations, you may not always be so lucky. But there are some tips on how to handle cancellations to help you get a good outcome:
- Know what is causing your cancellation - If your cancellation is due to weather, you’re going to have less recourse then if it’s caused by something the airline can control. Today, if weather is causing the cancellation, the airline isn’t going to do much in terms of amenities such as hotel rooms and food vouchers. If it’s due to something in the airline’s control, you have the right to as for accommodations like hotel rooms (if you’re delayed overnight) and food vouchers.
- Pay attention to what is going on with your flight – Check the day before to see if your flight is still on time. When you’re at your gate, look for the plane. It should be there a minimum of 30 minutes before your departure time to allow for deplaning of the previous flight and boarding of your flight. If it’s not there, you might want to ask the gate agent what is going on with the flight. Also if your plane is there, but you see the flight crew deplane, that could be a sign that the flight is going to be cancelled.
- Make sure the airline has your phone number/email – Airlines will alert you ahead of time that a flight is cancelled. Make sure you gave them your phone number and/or email address so they can send you updates on your flight.
- Find out where you flight is coming from – I found many times, the airline will not list your flight as delayed until very late, even when your plane is already know to be delayed from its previous location. You can find out where it’s coming from by asking the gate agent or checking a web site like Flight View. This is really important to do when you have connections that could be missed by delayed flights.
- Act before it’s cancelled – You may not always be able to know when your flight is going to be cancelled. But if you’re paying attention to what’s going on, you may have a good idea that it may get cancelled. Once I was on a flight that kept getting delayed. The agent said that there were electrical issues with the plane that they were trying to fix. When I heard that, I told the people around me that I thought the flight was going to get cancelled and they should try to get on the next flight (last flight out for the day to our location). They didn’t believe me (probably because I was only 24 at the time). I went down to the main customer service desk and asked if they could switch me to the next flight. They asked me if I was sure since my flight wasn’t cancelled. I said yes. When I got back to the gate, the agent was on the PA system announcing that the flight was now cancelled.
- Call the 800 number and get in a line – If your flight is cancelled, you want to act fast. Most people are going to rush the counter at your gate. Don’t do that unless you are first in line. The first thing you want to do is get on your cell phone and call the 800 number. If you’re an elite member, make sure to call the elite number. While on the phone, get to a counter – either another gate or one of the main customer service counters. Any gate agent can help you with a cancelled flight. You do not need to deal with it at our own gate.
- Be flexible - You want to have a plan of options before you talk to an agent. Are there other airports you could fly into? Could you get to other airport to fly out of? Are you close enough that you could drive? Could you take a train? Let the agent know options you’ve thought of and ask the agent if he/she has any other options.
- Be nice to the agent - I have seen so many people yell at gate agents. I always feel so bad for them. They are the face of the airline in a time when people are most stressed. I certainly wouldn’t want to be yelled at all day for something I didn’t cause. I have found that if you are reasonable and calm, they are MUCH more willing to work with you.
- Ask the agent if they can check other airlines - The agent is going to check to see if they can rebook you on one of their flights first. However, if they can’t find something on their flights, ask them if they could get you on a flight on another airline. They certainly don’t have to do this. That’s why it helps if you’re nice to them. They will be more willing to help you.
The faster you act, the more luck you’re going to have. You may not always be able to get out the day you want, but you’ll have a better chance if you’re one of the first people to act. And if you can’t get out, you’ll be able to find a hotel room and car before other people. So you may not have to sleep on the floor of the airport. Try to stay positive even when you’re in a bad situation.