What does my airline owe me if it cancels my flight?
Airlines do not guarantee flight schedules, so flight times are subject to change. In most cases, you shouldn't expect much if a flight is cancelled. Airlines cancel flights for many reasons, and the compensation you're entitled to depends on the circumstances of the cancellation.
Some airlines will attempt to contact passengers if the flight is canceled prior to the day of departure, using contact information from the reservations process. And, airlines suggest that passengers confirm their itineraries at least 24 hours prior to departure.
If an airline cancels for reasons beyond its control (e.g., weather, air traffic delays), it will not, in most cases, offer compensation to delayed passengers. However, if a flight is cancelled due to events within the airline's control (e.g., required maintenance, lack of flight crew), travelers may be entitled to compensation.
The first step airlines make is to rebook you on the next flight with available seats, in the same class of service as your original flight, at no additional charge. Some (but not all) airlines will rebook passengers in a higher class of service if the original class is full. If your ticket is for business or first class and space is not available, an airline will often rebook you in coach and offer a partial refund. And, if you opt not to fly due to the cancelled flight, you will often be issued a refund for the unused portion of the ticket. If there aren't any available seats with your carrier, it will often arrange for you to fly another carrier to your destination.
If your flight was the last flight of the day, or if the delay will be more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., many airlines will often provide compensation, including overnight accommodations, a phone card, and meal vouchers. However, some no-frill airlines may not offer compensation. If you're unsure of your airline's policy, it's smart to ask an airline employee if the airline will provide meal vouchers or other compensation. On most airlines, if you live in the city from which the flight is departing, you will not be eligible for compensation.
To avoid the hassle of dealing with a flight cancellation (or delay), try booking flights that depart early in the day. That way, if your flight is cancelled, you will have more options for being rebooked on a later flight. And, avoid connecting flights in cities with inclement weather (e.g., New England during the winter, Florida during the late summer hurricane season).