As I sat on the floor of Gate C 138 at Newark International Airport at 6:35 last week, desperate to get on a flight - any flight - to Chicago, I wondered what travel experts would do in my situation.
Stormy weather had grounded my flight out of John F. Kennedy the night before, but intent on beating the system, I booked a new flight the next morning out of Newark. But alas, it was cancelled just 15 minutes before boarding. Refusing to give up, I got on the standby list for the next flight, but being at the very bottom of said list, I never made it out. Defeated.
Here’s a woulda-shoulda-coulda for future airline annoyances from some trusted industry sources.
GET REBOOKED ON THE FLY.
While your first instinct when you see that your flight’s been cancelled is to fall down and cry (and by you, I mean me), realize that time is of the essence if you want to arrive at your destination before next week.
“You have two good options,” says David Lytle, editorial director of Frommers.com. First, avoid going back to the ticketing agent inside the gate, or the assigned ticketing agent to handle the cancellations. After all, everyone’s going there – expect a super long wait. “Leave the security area and go back to the front counter [near the airport entrance],” says Lytle. There are more airline agents our front and lines move faster. While you’re waiting in line, call the reservations desk to boost your chances of speaking with a live agent. Or, if you don’t want to go through a second round with the shoe inspector to get back into the secure area, head to a nearby gate with fewer people in line. The agents can at least get you on a stand-by list for the next flight. And if they’re in the mood, they may also be able to rebook your flight. Smile and be patient. In my experience, a cranky passenger gets served nothing but attitude.
Finally, by no means, if you worked with a third-party booker like Orbitz or Expedia, call them to rectify the situation, adds Lytle. It’s just a wasted step, since they still have to call the airline for you – the same number you can call. Cut the middleman, says Lydle. “They’re just selling you the contract. Your actual business deal is with that carrier.”
REFUND REALITIES & RULE 240.
It’s likely if your flight’s been cancelled that the airline’s already tried to accommodate you by putting you on the “next available flight.” But that may not be for another 48 hours. No good if you are on a strict schedule. What’s more, if you don’t speak with an agent – either on the phone or in person - to cancel that newly scheduled flight right away, you may never get a refund. Follow the above tips to ensure you get a hold of someone fast.
Then there’s old Rule 240. This is a federal aviation law established before the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. It’s a so-called “legacy” rule that ensured every domestic passenger a relatively fast, new seat on a “legacy” U.S. carrier in the event of a cancellation or 4+ hour delay caused by something within the carrier’s control, like mechanical problems, late arrivals, late pilots, etc. Carriers were obligated – even if it was a “non-refundable” ticket - to place you on a competitor's flight if they couldn’t bring you to your destination faster. You might have even scored first class seats thanks to Rule 240.
Today, while the rule is still floating around, “legacy” airlines like United, Delta and Continental have modified it, and other carriers established after 1978 like Jet Blue, Spirit and Southwest don’t follow the traditional rule at all. For your protection, scour each airline’s contract and do a search for “240” or “Refunds” to see what, if any, rules still apply. If it exists, print out a copy and carry it with you to the airport, just in case.
As for hotel and food refunds for an overnight delay, this varies from airline to airline. Some Rule 240 followers may or may not grant meal vouchers and hotel accommodations. But don’t fret – your credit card or pre-existing travel insurance may already have you covered.
For what it’s worth, realize that when a flight’s delayed or cancelled, it stinks for everyone, including the pilots. “When there is a delay because of weather, we don't know much more than passengers. Air Traffic Control and our company will give us an update time, but other than that we sit and wait,” says an anonymous Delta pilot (and old high school friend). He offered me an encouraging reminder. “Cancellations and delays are because safety is the number one, hands-down priority," be they due to weather, traffic congestion or maintenance problems. “Flying through a thunderstorm is something no one wants to do,” he adds. After all, getting to your destination is important. Getting there alive is essential.
Catch more of Farnoosh’s advice on Real Simple. Real Life. on TLC, Friday nights at 8 p.m.