When it comes to air travel, plans can change.
And they’ve been changing a lot lately. Labor shortages, economic uncertainty and a lingering pandemic have made flight schedules even more unpredictable.
U.S. airlines canceled 3% of their flights and delayed 21% of them by an average of 48 minutes during the first six months of 2022, according to real-time flight-tracking website FlightAware. By comparison, airlines canceled only 1.5% of flights a year before and delayed 14% in about the same timeframe as this year.
“Schedule changes are miserable at this time in aviation history,” said Geoffrey Millstone, a travel advisor with Clarksburg Travel. He tells his clients to expect a minimum of two flight changes per month – more during the busy travel seasons like spring break.
But a closer look at the cancellations shows an additional layer of complexity. It requires the skills of a professional to negotiate.
USA TODAY analysis:Here are the 10 airports with the most flight cancellations around the holidays
Flight delayed or canceled?:What you need to know and what airlines owe travelers
Flight schedule changes can be complicated
Consider what happened to Kate Canady, who booked two tickets to fly from Seattle to Dubuque, Iowa, in 2020. American Airlines offered her a flight credit because of the pandemic, and she tried to rebook her tickets twice but had to cancel because of the ongoing travel restrictions.
The third time she tried to rebook, American rescheduled her flight by more than four hours. Under its contract of carriage, that meant she could get a refund of “the remaining ticket value.” Canady decided it wasn’t meant to be, and asked her online agency, Expedia, to refund her ticket. A representative initially told her she could get a refund but then said she could only get a nonrefundable ticket credit.
Suffering from whiplash yet? I asked Expedia about her complicated refund case, and it reviewed her case. “Since Canady remembers being offered a refund, we will honor that and process it right away,” Expedia spokesperson Christie Hudson told me.
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Strategies for handling a flight schedule change
There’s no substitute for a travel professional. Here are some strategies travel pros use to handle flight schedule changes.
► Give yourself plenty of time
“The best defense against a canceled flight is time,” said Sofia Calvin, lead advisor of Storied Travel. “Try to get to your destination early – not the day before that family holiday dinner, wedding or any other special event. Knowing you have a few days will lessen your anxiety.”
► Get all your options
“Know your rights,” said Justin Hill, founder at Faretrotter, a new travel site. Two things you must know: First, find your airline’s contract of carriage or conditions of carriage, which outline the airline’s obligations during delays or cancellations. (They’re easy to find online.) Second, check the Department of Transportation website by clicking here to find out what you’re owed, if anything. I also publish a free guide to handling airline ticket problems on my advocacy site.
► Don’t wait to reschedule
Too often, passengers leave the airport and hope to fix their flight problems later. “But in most cases, you’re in the best position to make a change when you’re at the airport,” said Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, a medical transportation service. Don’t leave the terminal without a clear idea of how you’re going to salvage your itinerary.
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► Ask for a better routing
If an airline delays or cancels your flight, it will probably force you to wait a long time or reschedule you on an inconvenient flight. You don’t have to accept your new flight. Frank Harrison, a regional security director at World Travel Protection, advised negotiating with the airline to secure the flight you want. They can be surprisingly flexible. “Airlines will give this priority over a refund,” he said.
► Use the app
Resist the urge to stand in a long line at the airport. “While others run to customer service, rely instead on technology,” said Charleston, S.C.-based frequent traveler and keynote speaker E.J. Kritz. He was recently stuck in Charlotte after one of his flights was canceled.
“I calmly remained at the bar where I was enjoying dinner, opened my airline’s app, and rebooked myself to LaGuardia,” he said. Your airline app is not just for frequent air travelers. Anyone can download it, and it’s free. In many cases, it’s faster than a human.
► How do the pros do it?
Even professionals like travel agents and (ahem) travel journalists occasionally get stuck at the airport with a delayed or canceled flight. And cancellations are complicated, no question about it. But the pros I know always approach a flight cancellation or delay calmly and reschedule by the book. They know their rights, find the fastest way to get to their destination, and never waste their time yelling at a ticket agent at the airport. Given the predictions of another difficult holiday travel season, everyone should consider these professional strategies for handling a flight schedule change.
My flight was canceled but I got most of my costs covered (after 3 months)
Rescheduling mistakes to avoid
- Don’t skip the travel insurance: Kylie Loyd, owner of Drift Destinations, said in an era of frequent airline cancellations, it’s no longer an option. “Always get travel insurance,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if your flight offers free cancellations or changes. If there is an issue with flight cancellations, delays, or missing luggage, travel insurance can help at least add some monetary value to your time and belongings.”
- Don’t lose your cool: You’ve probably seen the freakout videos online. You know – flight canceled, passenger has a meltdown. That’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a traveler. “Remain calm,” said Roger Broussard, creative director of a website for pilots. But how? He said a little preparation can calm you down. Check out the airport before your flight to see how you can kill a few hours if necessary. Bring a good book or tablet computer downloaded with your favorite movies.
- Don’t forget your receipts: If you’re delayed six or more consecutive hours, travel insurance with trip delay coverage may reimburse you for unexpected expenses like hotel rooms, meals and taxi rides until your next available departure, up to the limit of your insurance policy. But Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Partners USA, said air travelers often forget about the benefit. “One of the biggest mistakes insured travelers can make is not keeping proper documentation of their delay or cancellation, which may be required for reimbursement,” he said. Save all of your receipts, text messages and emails – just in case.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at [email protected].