Holiday Travel 101: How to Avoid 5 Airline Horror Stories

Delayed? Stranded? Bumped? Diverted? Know the policies – and your rights – before you go, so you don't lose your cool this holiday season

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Bruno Rocha sleeps on the floor of John F. Kennedy Airport after having his flight to Brazil delayed due to a winter storm.

“We always have to do better,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a recent gathering of 250 government officials, who came together to discuss what could be done to avoid cascading airline delays caused by weather. The summit was called following a much publicized debacle in October, when at least three planes were stranded for nearly eight hours on a Connecticut airport tarmac.

Some of the recommendations that resulted from the conference — writing airport contingency scenarios that incorporate plans from airlines, creating a central website with airport information about diversions — are logical and welcome. But despite recent additions to the somewhat informal passenger bill of rights, there is still confusion among passengers who are hoping to fly this holiday season as to what they can expect to happen in the event of delays, cancellations or closures. Here’s what you need to know in navigating around unexpected weather-related winter mishaps.

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If you are bumped:
This common issue, which arises when an airline has overbooked a flight, isn’t necessarily weather-related. While overbooking isn’t illegal (after all, sometimes people just don’t show up), airlines are required to make other accommodations for people who are booked on overcapacity flights. First, they’ll likely ask you to give up your seat in exchange for a voucher. Delta will offer up to $650 for flights that will land within two hours of your original flight and up to $1,300 if a delay is more than two hours. American Airlines has the same upper limits on compensation for both domestic and international flights but will start paying up if the new flight lands more than one hour after the original one. If for some reason you’re stuck overnight at the airport, some airlines, including Delta and U.S. Airways, will put you up in a hotel — though that’s “subject to availability,” of course.

If your flight is canceled:
It’s pretty disheartening to get to the airport — often an exhausting experience in itself — only to find that your flight is delayed five hours or canceled altogether. Even more discouraging: there is no official government policy, and no consistent industry standard, as to how passengers are to be accommodated or compensated. The Department of Transportation (DOT) page explaining the rights of air travelers points out that “contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled … compensation is required by law only when you are ‘bumped’ from a flight that is oversold.”

The most common airline response to cancellations or delays is to rebook you on the next available flight, especially if the cancellation is within the airline’s control. Weather-related cancellations or air-traffic-control issues are not within the airline’s control, which is too bad because those two factors cause a lot of cancellations. If you’re stuck overnight, unless the airline is clearly at fault, you may have to pay for overnight stays yourself — or grab an empty spot on the floor of the airport. Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, says that a cool attitude is key: “Don’t take anything anyone says personally.” While it might seem like it’s you against the representative at the counter, try to remember that those tending to you are working hard during peak travel time and may not even get to see their own families during the holiday. A good attitude will go a long way toward enticing them to go the extra mile on your behalf.

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If your plane is diverted and sits on the tarmac:
A key way to avoid flying headaches is by doing a little homework. All airlines are required by the DOT to post contingency plans for tarmac delays on their website. JetBlue, which had three planes diverted and then stranded in the now infamous October incident, follows the DOT rule that after two hours, the airline is to provide flyers with snacks and water, as well as any necessary medical attention. Cabin crews must also ensure that bathrooms are in working order. After another hour passes on domestic flights, JetBlue is supposed to move the plane back to the gate or take stairs to the aircraft for passengers to deplane. Meanwhile, Delta’s plan states that the airline “should allow at least 30 minutes (or as much as 60 minutes at larger stations) to complete the task of returning to the gate and deplaning.” Southwest’s contingency plan says that the aircraft must not remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless the pilot “determines that there is a safety-related or security-related reason” to keep it where it is.

If you’re waiting for three hours on the tarmac:
After the airport ignored pleas from the pilot on one of the JetBlue planes stranded in October, some passengers resorted to calling 911 themselves. One passenger required medical attention. The plane had also run out of water and snacks, and the bathroom facilities were out of order. The situation was unusual in that people had gone from inconvenienced to desperate, and while 911 may have been the correct course of action during this emergency situation, experts warn that it would not be advisable for passengers to call 911 unless someone’s health — or life — were at stake. Law enforcement isn’t generally part of the chain of command in the airline industry, says Elliott. “I’ve never seen a cop on the runway,” he adds.

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How to prepare for the worst-case scenario:
Your best defense against being an uninformed, irate, stranded passenger is to sign up for alerts (text, e-mail or otherwise) from your airline, ensuring you are made aware of your flight status early and often. The faster you can learn about a canceled flight, the quicker you can nab one of the few remaining seats on an alternate plane. Before leaving home, be sure to charge all your gadgets. Although airports are increasingly installing charge-up stations for this very task, the number of stranded passengers often surpasses the number of available outlets, and having a full battery comes in handy if you are canceled, diverted or stranded. Not only will busy airline agents often refer you to an 800 number to rebook your travel, but if you find yourself in a strange city on a busy holiday night, you may have a limited amount of time to secure an available rental car or hotel room.

The Federal Aviation Administration tracks and publishes up-to-the-minute flight-status information at the largest airports across the U.S., so be sure to bookmark this site in your smart phone. And in addition to storing some water and snacks in your carry-on, Edward Hasbrouck, travel expert and author of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, urges travelers to carry enough essential medicines to last substantially longer than you expect to be traveling. Hasbrouck, who isn’t a fan of e-tickets, says that having (and holding onto) a paper ticket could save you from a bad situation, especially with an increase in air traffic during the holidays. “It’s a routine occurrence that you show up and they say there’s no record of your ticket in the database,” says Hasbrouck. “With a paper ticket, they can’t say you don’t have a reservation.” Other experts remind travelers that a “seat assignment” doesn’t necessarily guarantee a seat if a flight is oversold, so be sure to check in as early as possible to secure a seat number.

Apart from being well informed, there isn’t much else passengers can do to ensure that they don’t find themselves trapped in a miserable situation. The real issues lie with the industry and its regulators — with improving communication between airports and airlines during inclement weather. A contingency plan is pretty worthless if officials at an airport ignore it. And DOT policies don’t include punishments for airports that cause or exacerbate tarmac delays. Instead of punishing airlines after passengers have been forced to endure long delays, transportation officials need to re-evaluate how problems on the tarmac are handled and develop a better system that doesn’t leave pilots warring with airport officials over getting a sick person off a stalled plane. For passengers, the reality is that until changes come, you’re largely still on your own. But do realize that you won’t be stuck in any situation forever, reminds Elliott: “You’re eventually going to make it to Grandma’s.”

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