NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It will happen to you. Flights get cancelled -- 559 at O’Hare Airport in Chicago on a Sunday in early October alone. Though the cause typically is bad weather, that O’Hare disaster was triggered by sabotage at the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic facility in Aurora, Ill. Anything can happen.ash billowing out of a volcano in Iceland.
In Mexico, on September 14 the Cabo Airport in Baja California was smacked by Odile - which damaged terminal buildings, the control tower and more. The airport was abruptly closed, with re-opening set for October 8 - meaning hundreds of flights were cancelled.
Point is: wholesale cancellations happen for many reasons, not always predictable, but snowstorms are a common cause and we are heading into the season.
And when flights are cancelled, jilted passengers suffer. Because planes are flying fuller than ever (on average, 84% full, according to the U.S. government), it takes days - possibly weeks - for an airline to get back on track after major disruptions such as the Iceland ash blizzard. That means passengers don’t get where they want to be. Many are stuck in distant airports for days on end.
You don’t want to be that passenger.
Know this: savvy travelers have a bag of tactics for dealing with the stuff cancellations throw at you. They do not always get accommodated on the next plane out of Dodge - although often they do - but whatever comes their way they have plans that maximize their comfort, minimize their financial losses, and limit how much time is lost.
Book an airport hotel room. Airport hotels fill up fast when the first snowflakes fall. You don’t want to sleep on the airport’s hard plastic chairs. Even before your flight is cancelled, when snow is in the forecast book a room just in case - and know the hotel’s cancellation policy (usually you can cancel up to 4 p.m. local time without penalty).
Check flight status - at home or work - before leaving for the airport, advised The Road Warriorette, who blogs about business travel.
“Check flight status before you leave for the airport," she said. "It's far more comfortable to try to deal with cancellations from home or a hotel rather than competing with hundreds of people at the airport.”
While you are at this, sign up for text alerts with your airline. Many travelers now say they hear about cancellations via SMS before they see an email or get a voice call.
Never wait in line at the airline’s counter. Frequent fliers swear that waiting in long lines on days of mass cancellations is a sucker’s game. Use your phone to call the help desk, urged Dena Roche, who blogs at TheTravelDiet.
Even better in many cases, surf to the airline’s Website and help yourself with DIY. You’re trying but not fixing your problem? Head to the nearest club of your airline. Buy your way in if need be (typically $50 or under, but sometimes you can sweet talk your way in for free). “They will usually have more knowledgeable staff and shorter lines,” said Dan Miller, who blogs at PointsWithaCrew.com
Know exactly what you want. Advised Andy Luten, who blogs at AndysTravelBlog.com: “Be prepared! Use the time waiting in line or at the gate to research alternate routes on your smartphone and ask for those routes.” Know when the next flight to Buffalo is; don’t guess. When talking with agents, be ready to spell out the solution you want - and if that can’t be done, your next favorite option. Otherwise...you may be accommodated on the next flight on the third of never.
Invoke Rule 240. Airlines, when they were regulated, abided by Rule 240 which said that if the airline failed to serve you because of something in its control (a crew failing to show up, for instance) the passenger can ask to be accommodated on another carrier with the airline picking up any cost differences. Sound good? Well, not all airlines still play by Rule 240 - air traffic deregulated in 1978 - but some do. It’s worth asking about Rule 240, but if the carrier tells you to buzz off, don’t think this is an inalienable right of yours. It isn’t.
Don’t expect miracles via Twitter. Some experts advise Tweeting your distress, directing the Tweet to the airline (they all now monitor that social media feed). It’s harmless enough. But, usually, Twitter is for venting upsets, not for getting tangible fixes for your problems. It takes a minute to Tweet, so do it. But don’t bank on a miracle.
Go carry-on only. A frequent flier rule is to always go carry-on only, but double down on that when cancellations loom. If a checked bag is inside the system, your flexibility is erased. Just don’t do it.
Know your rights. It’s like The Clash sang. Your rights may be more phantom than real. If your problems are caused by weather or air traffic control issues, you are owed zip. If the airline’s equipment has failed, you may be owed a meal voucher, sometimes a free night in a hotel. But don’t count on anything. Airlines have not clawed their way into profitability by handing out lots of freebies.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet