Ticket to Nowhere: Cancelled Flights & Your Rights

Posted March 27, 2013 by Kristen J. Zavo in On the Ladder
Cancelled Flights Departures Board

A few weeks ago I embarked on what was supposed to be a 1-day business trip.  The fact that it was going to be a long day was far outweighed by the fact that I didn’t have to pack and I’d be sleeping in my own bed that night.

Or so I thought….

My 7pm flight was delayed multiple times due to mechanical issues before it was finally cancelled, around 9pm.  At this point, there were no more flights back home – direct, with layovers or on another carrier.  The airline comp’d a room at an airport hotel and sent me on my way with a $25 gift card to use at the airport eateries that were already closed.

Looking back, I’m not sure how I stayed so calm.  I’ve been traveling extensively for over 8 years now, and while I’ve definitely experienced cancelled flights, I was never in a position where I had to stay overnight with absolutely no provisions – no toiletries, no charger for my phone/laptop, no change of clothes, and no open stores to stock up on the necessities.

My experience left me feeling like I had been taken advantage of:

–       The airline admitted to knowing about the mechanical issues since early afternoon
–       They said they had been looking for a replacement plane since then
–       So why couldn’t they have decided to cancel the flight before all the other flights had left?
–       Didn’t they owe me more than a room and a useless $25 gift card for my troubles?
–       Shouldn’t I be compensated for the extra hours at the airport or for missing my early am meeting?

After all, this was not weather related.  Determined to write a letter to customer service,
I did some research to determine our rights as passengers. The results shocked me.

According to the U.S Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection website,

Contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled. As discussed in the chapter on overbooking, compensation is required by law only when you are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight. If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, you might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays and cancellations aren’t unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is your most important consideration.

Each airline has it’s own conditions of carriage (previously known as Rule 240), which specify their obligations, if any, to passengers when a flight is cancelled.  When I looked up my airline, I realized that I was in fact treated fairly.

Determined to turn this into a useful experience, I’m hoping you can benefit from my unexpected overnight stay.  I’ve summed up lessons learned below, in my

Top 6 Travel Tips:

  1. When possible, try to avoid booking the last flight out.
  2. Take a look at your specific airline’s policies for cancelled and delayed flights beforehand so that you know what their obligations are to you in each situation.
  3. If you suspect your flight might be cancelled due to mechanical reasons, it might be worth the gamble to hop on another flight that is on schedule (even a connecting flight).
  4. When your flight has been delayed, get in the re-booking line fast.  As you wait in line, call the airline and tell them your situation.  Sometimes you can get your preferred flight and seat faster that way – and avoid a sold-out situation by the time you make it to the ticket agent.
  5. Have an emergency overnight stash.  The bare essentials for an impromptu overnight stay do not take up much room in your bag – consider stuffing a t-shirt, change of undergarments and makeup/baby wipes in a side pocket of your tote or laptop bag.  Generally hotels will be able to provide you with a complimentary toothbrush, toothpaste and of course shower products.
  6. Always, always bring a charger for your phone. There are few things worse than being stranded and losing all connection to the outside world!

While none of us like our plans to go awry, a big piece of the stress comes from being unprepared.  But knowing your rights and options when a flight is cancelled, and also knowing you’ve got your backup emergency essentials in your bag will make you better equipped to keep your calm while traveling.

About the Author

Kristen J. Zavo

Kristen J. Zavo is a product development, strategy and innovation professional, with a special interest in the retail industry. Having always been interested in the people side of business, Kristen loves to explore, reflect on, and share stories about the challenges and adventures of being a businesswoman. No topic is off limits - whether it's how to handle being the only woman in the boardroom, or figuring out how to to pack all the "essentials" for a 2-week business trip in just a carry-on! Outside of work, she loves exploring new places, spending time at the beach and meeting friends to workout (spin or yoga, anyone?!).