What Can You Do When Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled?

by Ember Hood

Air travel seems straight-forward. You purchase a ticket. You arrive on time, jump through the security hoops at the airport, board the plane and off you go. But what if the unexpected happens; what if your flight is delayed or canceled? Unfortunately your recourse options are most often limited by the airline’s own regulations (aka: “Contract of Carriage”), but there are a few instances when the Department of Transportation has stepped in and set limits for the airlines.

What if your flight is delayed?
Passengers of delayed flights don't have many options when it comes to federal regulations. The airlines aren't required to do much when they make you wait for your flight. The Department of Transportation has made sure that airlines do not keep passengers stranded on a plane on the tarmac for more than 3 hours. If you have to wait more than two hours, they're required to offer food and water as well as functioning restrooms. At the 3-hour mark, airlines must let passengers disembark if they wish to.

For delays when you are waiting in the airport, most airlines will compensate you for meals or give you hotel rooms if the delay is both long enough and the fault of the airline. You may have to ask, and ask again, and perhaps even again.

What if your flight is canceled?
If your flight is canceled, no matter the reason, you will be offered a seat on the next available flight to your destination with that airline carrier. Sometimes they will transfer your ticket to another airline, but that is entirely up to the airline. You could also opt to have your ticket refunded instead of taking a later flight. Once again, most airlines will offer hotels and meal vouchers if the delay is long enough and their fault. Almost all airlines will deny extra amenities if the cancellation is caused by a "force majeur" - this includes weather or other natural disaster, political upheaval, labor strikes or riots. And don’t forget, you may have to ask, and ask again, and perhaps even again.

What if you are bumped from your flight?
If a flight is overbooked, it is likely that the airline will ask for volunteers to be bumped in exchange for a voucher or some other compensation. If your flight isn't time sensitive, this can be a good opportunity to get a credit with the airline for future travel, in exchange for waiting a few hours in the airport. If, however, you are bumped without volunteering, the airline is required by the Department of Transportation and federal law to compensate you if you will subsequently arrive at your destination more than an hour later than previously scheduled. If your new flight arrives between one and two hours late (four if on an international flight), the airline must give you 100% of your ticket price in cash, up to $400. If being involuntarily bumped from your flight makes you more than two hours late (or four hours late, internationally), they must give you 200% of your ticket price, up to $800. They might try to give you vouchers or credits with the airline instead, which could be a better deal, but federal regulation states that you are entitled to a cash refund if that's what you want.

An important thing to remember when your flight is delayed, canceled, or oversold, is that you have to speak up. If you are not happy with the compensation you are given, keep asking for more. You may have to speak to a manager, but the more you speak up, the better your chance of more compensation. The only person advocating for you is YOU!