AS thousands of passengers who were caught up in last month’s bout of snowstorms along the East Coast can attest, finding a new flight after a major weather cancellation is getting not only harder, but more complex.
While bad weather has long caused major headaches for airlines and passengers alike, there was usually enough slack in the system to absorb last-minute changes and get travelers rerouted in some reasonable fashion. But aggressive cuts in capacity in recent years have left little wiggle room for adjustments.
On top of this, travelers are contending with some new weather-related twists: First, carriers have begun to pro-actively cancel flights, even before the first flakes start to fall. Second, when airlines expect bad weather, some are offering passengers the option to rebook even before the flight is canceled.
The moves are a way for airlines to get ahead of the logistical and public relations problems caused by weather disruptions.
“If we rebook them on an earlier flight, we accomplish both of our goals,” said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, which has been increasingly offering travelers the chance to change their flights without penalty before a storm hits and flights are outright canceled. “It allows them to rebook and takes the additional pressure off the operation.”
Still, it all makes for a kind of interactive guessing game about a subject as fickle as, well, the weather. And ultimately passengers are at the mercy of the airlines.
Take Carolyn Torino, an accounts receivable representative from Hillburn, N.Y., who last year booked tickets on Continental from Newark to New Orleans for Mardi Gras for herself, her mother and 10-year-old son. When a storm canceled the flight, the best alternative she was offered was a flight four days later. While Continental had waived change and cancel fees, Ms. Torino had prepaid for rooms at a B & B over the holiday weekend, so she would be out $1,200.
Taking matters into her own hands, she spent the day with her family at the airport trying to fly standby. They didn’t get on. “We missed a family dinner and we had to pay for our B & B room for the night,” Ms. Torino said. Cost: $300.
Only after she pleaded with a gate agent at the airport did Continental find space on a flight out the next evening, Friday, Feb. 12. “If we did not stay in the airport all that day, I would have not gotten a plane until Monday morning, the 15th. I would have lost $1,200.”
While airlines typically attempt to rebook passengers on an alternate flight and offer refunds if flights are canceled, they are not obligated to refund, reroute or compensate passengers for meals or hotel costs incurred if their flight is canceled because of weather, according to the Department of Transportation.
Yet certain strategies can pay off as travelers duke it out over the remaining alternatives. Here are some guidelines on what to do if your flight is scrapped because of weather.
With rebooking now an option on many airlines even before flights are canceled, passengers with flexible schedules can take matters into their own hands, moving up their flight to beat the storm. Check the airline’s Web site for weather bulletins or storm waivers when forecasts are ominous.
Don’t Bypass the Automated System
Your first instinct may be to press zero when frantically trying to get a customer service representative on the phone, but you could actually end up waiting much longer. Travelocity, for example, moves up travelers whose flights were canceled midtrip or within 48 hours of departure to the top of the queue, based on their confirmation code or “Trip I.D.” Those who skip this step in the automated process don’t get to skip the line.
You may also be able to beat other travelers who are waiting on hold by rebooking your flight yourself online. Delta and United, among others, allow travelers to revise itineraries on their Web sites by clicking on a link in their weather bulletin and plugging in the confirmation number.
Many travelers automatically try to rebook another flight with the same airline, leaving from the same airport, when their flight is canceled. But those aren’t the only options. In cases of severe weather delays and cancellations, airlines generally offer full refunds for canceled flights or if the alternative schedules offered are simply unacceptable. That means, if you find a better flight on another airline, you can book that instead and recoup the cost of the original tickets.
Sure, booking a last-minute flight will inevitably cost more than those cheapo seats you purchased months in advance, but at least you’ll make it to your destination.
Consider Travel Insurance
Even though airlines typically waive change or cancel penalties amid major storms, travel insurance can cover things like unused hotel rooms or prepaid deposits. For instance, if Ms. Torino of Hillburn, N.Y., had travel insurance, she could have been reimbursed for the unused nights at the New Orleans bed-and-breakfast.
Be Persistent, But Be Prepared to Roll With it
Snow happens. And happens again, as Wendy Stryker, a litigator from New York, and her husband, Richard Robbins, discovered the hard way. They endured more than an hour of hold time between them when their Delta flight to Fort Lauderdale was canceled in early February. The next best alternative offered by the airline was four days later — the day they and their children were scheduled to return. Their choices: take a refund, or put off the trip and apply the unused tickets toward the purchase of a new flight. The family chose the latter but was told the ticket price had gone up about $150 a person.
Frustrated, Ms. Stryker persisted. She asked for a supervisor. “I said, ‘Please explain to me why you’re not going to honor our fare,’ ” she said. The response: “It’s not our fault because of the weather.” After much discussion and a 20-minute hold, the supervisor eventually agreed to rebook the family on a flight two weeks later at the original fare.
But the problem with the weather is that it’s so unpredictable. On the day they were supposed to fly, another storm hit New York, and Delta canceled the family’s flight yet again. This time they were rebooked onto a flight later that morning. But after they and other passengers had boarded, Delta announced that the plane was too heavy to fly given the weather conditions, and 40 passengers, including the Robbins family, were removed. “We had to wait a long time for them to get our gate-checked car seats and bag,” said Mr. Robbins. “I was last in line of 40 people in a mob scene.”
Finally, the family learned they would not get out until the next evening at the earliest, scuttling their plans for a long weekend getaway. They gave up and went home to Manhattan — seven hours after they’d left for the airport. “Had Delta canceled the flight rather than make us go to the airport, board and then kick us off, we wouldn’t both have missed work today and we wouldn’t have had this entire ordeal,” Mr. Robbins said.