Jun 24, 2022 - Economy

Flight canceled? What to know about your rights

An airliner on a 'no' sign.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

If you're flying somewhere this summer (and who isn't?), expect the worst: crowded airports, flight changes, delays and cancellations — in a word, misery.

  • But you're not entirely at the mercy of tapped-out airlines. If you're proactive, you can minimize your chances of getting stuck — or at least try to get reimbursed for your troubles.

The big picture: Thanks to staffing shortages and other issues, the sporadic airport meltdowns of summer and fall 2021 are becoming the norm — at least for the foreseeable future.

  • U.S. airlines canceled or delayed nearly 15,000 flights last weekend, according to FlightAware — "a staggering total that's normally only seen during time-limited and high-profile events like hurricanes or blizzards," per travel site The Points Guy.

What's happening: Government officials are leaning on airlines to do a better job, while airlines are trimming service in a desperate effort to declog the pipes.

  • In a recent meeting with airline CEOs, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed the execs to stress-test their ambitious flight schedules and to improve customer service when cancellations occur.
  • Almost all major U.S. airlines have proactively cut their schedules, some by as much as 15%, acknowledging that their operations are stretched to the brink. Some of those revisions don't kick in until July 1, meaning we're not seeing the relief yet.
  • "I really want to underscore how drastic of a step it is to cut flights from a summer schedule," Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, told my colleague Nathan Bomey. "It would be akin to Walmart saying we're not going to open on Black Friday."

Yes, but: Airlines say not all of the problems are within their control and that they need help from the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • The industry's biggest bottleneck is air traffic control, says United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. "Even on a blue sky day, there are ground delays" at Newark, for example, because more flights are scheduled to land than the airport can handle, he told Bloomberg.
  • United said Thursday it will cut about 50 flights a day from Newark for the remainder of the summer to ease congestion.

What you need to know: By law, "a consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the consumer chooses not to travel."

  • You're also entitled to a refund if there's a significant schedule change or delay — usually two hours or longer — and you opt not to travel.
  • But crucially, there's no hard-and-fast rule around what "significant delay" means. The "chooses not to travel" language is key too — you fly, you buy.
  • It's even trickier when bad weather's involved, said Zach Griff, senior aviation reporter at The Points Guy. There are no refunds for weather-related delays, but those often turn into cancellations because crews "time out" — meaning they exceeded federal crew rest rules.
  • Travelers often have to pursue their own refunds — airlines don't always issue them automatically, and squeaky wheels get the grease.

What's next: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and several other lawmakers are pushing for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights that would, among other things, require airlines to cover passengers' meals and lodging costs if they're delayed more than four hours.

  • Their bill has been sitting idle on the proverbial tarmac, but it could get new life as the summer of airline hell drags on.

The bottom line: Amid widespread delays and cancellations, passengers should be proactive and not wait for the airline to tell them there's a problem. And set your expectations accordingly — air travel won't be smooth for a long while.

  • Monitor the weather at your departure airport, your destination and wherever your plane is coming from. Sites like FlightAware can help with this.
  • If a long delay looks likely, start exploring alternatives early, using your airline's app. Look into other airlines too — the refund on your original flight could be enough to cover switching airlines.
  • If you booked your flight with a credit card, your provider may be able to help you change your arrangements or get refunded.
  • The Points Guy has a lot more tips here.
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