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man looking at canceled flight board.

The Airlines Most Likely to Strand You with a Canceled Flight

Nobody loves a canceled flight. Travelers’ plans get thwarted, airlines wind up with planes in the wrong places, airports can’t handle the crowds. Although airport hotels may like the extra business, they’re no fun to be in. These problems translate into big aggravation.

A leading airline compensation site, AirHelp, recently calculated that in 2019 canceled flights affected some 13.5 million airline passengers in the United States. The results show the outliers that are more likely to post a canceled flight that could strand you.

A Look at Canceled Flight Rates, by Airline

Here’s how the seven largest U.S. airlines scored:

Airline Flights Canceled Passengers Affected
American Airlines 53,000 4,516,000
United Airlines 37,000 2,200,000
Southwest Airlines 30,000 3,635,000
Delta Air Lines 12,000 779,000
Alaska Airlines 5,000 512,000
JetBlue Airways 4,000 379,000
Hawaiian Airlines 250 17,000

Although the four giant lines—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—are in the same ballpark for total numbers of travelers, the cancellation figures show some stark contrasts:

  • American is substantially worse than its rivals in canceling flights, affecting twice as many passengers as United and a quarter more than Southwest.
  • Why does United cancel more flights than Southwest but affect fewer passengers? The source data do not say, but my guess is that a lot of United’s cancellations are small regional jets, while Southwest flies only larger mainline planes.
  • Delta outperforms its three giant rivals by wide margins. This is yet another measure of the general industry consensus that Delta is running a much better operation than its rivals, overall.

Alaska carries about a quarter of the number of passengers as each of the giants, so on a per-passenger basis, its 512,000 passengers affected is on a par with United. JetBlue, with about the same number of total passengers, does a bit better than Alaska. And Hawaiian, flying so many short interisland flights in sunny Hawaii, scores far better than any other line per-passenger.

Together, U.S. airlines carried some 775 million passengers through October, 2019, and are on track to exceed the yearly total in 2019. Thus, the total cancellations that affected more than 13 million travelers so far this year amount to a reassuringly small fraction of the total—less than two percent. Still, if you’re in that two percent, you face big trouble.

Depending on where you fly and which airline you fly, an airline may owe you cash compensation for a delay or cancellation. A quick visit to the AirHelp website allows you to check on any flight, and if you want, to enlist AirHelp’s assistance in pursuing a claim. AirHelp’s core business is getting compensation under European Regulation 261.

Like a tort lawyer, AirHelp makes its money by taking a small cut of whatever compensation in recovers, with no up-front fees—though they take part of whatever restitution you get (which you’d be unlikely to achieve on your own). It also helps travelers recover under U.S. regulations, but I suspect that’s a small portion of its business.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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