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Flight Delays - What you Need to Know

"Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you…"

These are the words that raise the blood pressure of any airline traveler. Flight cancellation? Weather delay? Mechanical problem? Flight overbooked?

Flight Delays

Certainly one of the most common of the aggravations affecting air travelers is a flight delay. There are, however, some measures you can take to minimize the risk.

  1. Avoid airlines and flights where delays are common.

    Large airlines keep track of their on-time performance on a flight-by-flight basis, and many list their performance rates online, although they may be a bit difficult to find. If you cannot find the on-time performance on the airline's web site, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics keeps track of a myriad of performance statistics. With just the flight number and airline, you can easily check numbers of delays, average delay, taxi-in times and taxi-out times for a specified date range.

  2. Arrange flight notifications.

    Many travel booking web sites (such as Expedia) and airline sites offer free flight notifications that can be sent to your mobile phone or e-mail. These notifications offer information such as flight delays, departure gate assignments and gate changes. Conceivably, this could save you lots of time, but in actuality, they seem to be only marginally effective. Airlines often wait until the last minute to announce a delay, so you may not be notified until you arrive at the airport.

  3. Avoid connecting flights if possible.

    The greatest impact of flight delays is when they cause you to miss a connecting flight. If you can't schedule a non-stop flight, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics can also help you determine which airports are problematic

    If you must choose a connecting flight, make sure you build in enough time between flights to accommodate a delay. If you arrive early and your luggage is all carry-on, you may be able to fly standby on the earlier flight and still be guaranteed a seat on the later flight. If your original flight is more heavily booked, the airline will be happy to put you on the earlier flight.

  4. Avoid the last flight of the day.

    If you are on the last flight out and it is canceled, your options become not which flight will be best but whether you'll be sleeping in the airport or at a local hotel. Whenever possible, pick a flight that leaves an hour or two before the last flight of the day. In a pinch, you might be able to get on the other flight (this is really only a viable option if you have not checked bags on the original flight).

  5. Arrive early and check in.

    The less time a passenger allows, the greater the risk of lost or delayed luggage, seat assignments right next to the lavatory or denied boarding due to overbooking or a missed flight.

  6. Expect delays.

    If your schedule requires you to arrive on time to make your appointment, you're simply asking for trouble. "On-time arrival" is often an oxymoron like "jumbo shrimp" or "working vacation." Pad enough time into your schedule so that a flight delay won't impact your business meeting or cruise departure.

How to Handle a Delay

  1. Keep your cool.

    Be polite but firm. Use terms like "Can you help me get to…?" or "Is it possible to put me on another carrier's flight?"

    • Be patient.

      A flight delay is generally just that--a delay. Whether due to a delayed incoming flight or mechanical problem, the flight usually takes off, albeit an hour or more late. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, it is not wise to attempt to switch flights. First, there is no guarantee another flight will be any less problematic (especially if the delay is due to weather). If you've checked any bags, you will either be separated from your luggage or not be allowed to switch, since you must fly on the same plane as your bags for security reasons.

    • Call the reservations center.

      When a flight is cancelled, you may find yourself in a long line of fellow travelers awaiting a customer service agent to make alternate flight arrangements. You can avoid all this and use a phone to contact the reservations center directly.

    • Know your rights (or more aptly, your lack of rights).

      While new federal guidelines impose limits on how long passengers may be kept onboard a plane while it is parked or taxiing on the tarmac, they do not address situations where passengers have been prevented from boarding due to a delay. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport, and they often differ substantially. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if they will pay for meals or give you a hotel voucher. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline's control. Airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled, and typically provide meal or hotel vouchers only for extenuating circumstances and only on return trips, not the originating outbound flights.

  2. If all else fails, ask to see the customer service agent.

    If you are not getting an acceptable resolution for your problem, ask to see the airline's customer service representative. Often, these are very experienced, former gate agents who have the familiarity and authority to make arrangements that a gate agent may lack, and are usually the only people who can authorize a switch to another airline, hotel vouchers or alternative transportation.

  3. Airline bumping.

    Airlines routinely sell more tickets for a flight than they have seats. This is known as "overbooking" and, contrary to common sense, is not illegal and does help to keep airplane tickets cheaper by attempting to account for the inevitable no-shows on every flight. In cases where the airline overestimates the number of no-shows, the airline must get some passengers to voluntarily give up their seats and/or deny boarding to the late arrivers. Airlines have complete latitude as to what to offer to get passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. These usually take the form of a guaranteed seat on the next flight (which may be the following day) and a voucher for $100 or more off a future ticket. If you're booked on an overbooked flight and have flexible travel plans, feel free to negotiate. It is not uncommon to receive a first- or business-class upgrade on the next flight along with a meal voucher. If you don't like the deal, don't take it.

    If the airline fails to get enough passengers to volunteer to give up their seats, they may deny boarding to some unlucky passengers. If that unlucky passenger is you, then it is helpful to know your rights. For more information regarding your rights, see the Department of Transportation's Fly-Rights A Consumer Guide to Travel.

    • If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
    • If the airline arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $400 maximum.
    • If the alternate transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of your fare, $800 maximum.)

    You are always permitted to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience. Keep in mind that you must meet the airline's requirements for ticketing check-in deadlines. Airlines are free to set their own check-in deadlines which may be as low as 10 minutes or as long as an hour or more before takeoff. These rules do not apply to planes with 60 or fewer seats, international flights to the United States or charter flights. As mentioned earlier, the easiest way to avoid being bumped is getting to the airport early, leaving some other unlucky traveler to be the bumped passenger.

Keep In Mind

Delays, cancellations, and bumps are much easier to handle when you've elected not to check baggage. When all your belongings are with you, it is a simple matter to grab your stuff and hop on the next available flight. With your bags in the belly of the plane, you often have very limited options. So remember to pack light and choose a bag that meets airline carry-on requirements.

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