From bad weather to equipment failure, there are a million little things that can and do go wrong when people travel by air. Every passenger will, at some point, experience hiccups en route to their chosen destination. In 2019, there were more than one million flight delays—around 19 percent of all flights—and almost 120,000 flight cancellations (just over 2 percent), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. As 2021 draws to a close, with travel back on the rise after being hit hard by the pandemic and a labor shortage making it difficult for airlines to meet the demand, flight delays and cancellations continue to be a routine part of many travelers’ journeys. Unfortunately, what you should do when these incidents happen is not always so clear.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to lessen the inconvenience and minimize your chances of an airport delay before you’ve even booked your trip.
Why Are Flights Delayed?
When an airline reports a delay, it is placed in one of five categories created by the Air Carrier On-Time Reporting Advisory Committee, which, yes, is very much a thing. They include:
Extreme Weather: According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, weather woes made up around 38 percent of all delays in 2019. That includes snowstorms, hurricanes, and any other meteorological condition that prevents the carrier from making the flight.
National Aviation System: America’s crumbling infrastructure system has become a key talking point for both political parties, and that includes neglected airports and an outdated air traffic control network. These conditions make it difficult to manage the growing volume of flights and result in delays.
Security Concerns: If your flight has ever been delayed during a government shutdown, it was most likely flagged as a security-related issue. These types of delays are a result of snags in airport security operations such as broken screening equipment, security breaches, or excessively long wait times.
Late-Arriving Aircraft: This is an all-too-familiar scenario for most flyers. Your departure time has come and gone, but you’re still waiting around the gate for your plane to arrive from its previous city.
Air Carrier: This means the delay was entirely within the control of the airline, sometimes referred to in an airline’s contract of carriage as “irregular operations.” Mechanical issues and crew problems would fall under this category. Unlike force majeure events, irregular operations put airlines on the hook, which is why they aren’t always so forthcoming with the reason for these types of delays.
10 Ways to Prevent or Cope with Flight Delays
Nothing throws a wrench into your travel plans quite like airport delays. The secret is to reduce your risk of experiencing them and have coping mechanisms ready to prevent flight delays from spoiling your trip.
Check On-Time Performance
First things first, check the on-time performance stats for your flight before booking. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation allows you to search historical data by flight number, as well as compare by airline or even by airport. Sites like FlightAware and FlightStats also provide flight data, though not quite as thorough. If a flight you’re considering has a history of delays or cancellations, you might want to consider an alternative.
Choose an Early Flight
No one likes schlepping to the airport before sunrise, but being on the first flight of the day has its perks. Early flights won’t yet be affected by delays that ripple through the route system as the day progresses, meaning they are more likely to take off on time. Not only are these early-bird flights typically on schedule, but, because of their unpopular departure times, they are often among the cheapest fares. You’ll be on time and a few bucks richer.
Book a Nonstop Flight
There’s a reason nonstop flights are sometimes more expensive than connecting flights; they could save you significant hassle. If you’re struggling to justify splurging on a nonstop, think of it as reducing your chances for delay by half.
If nonstop flights aren’t available, or that cheap connecting fare is just too low to resist, at least choose your connection city wisely. When flying in the middle of winter, you’ll probably encounter fewer weather-related delays in warmer hub cities like Phoenix, Houston, or Atlanta. In summer, some airports have better on-time ratings than others, so take that into account when selecting your route.
Also consider using smaller airports and avoid busy airline hubs whenever possible. “Secondary” airports are usually less congested and less prone to delays.
Be Proactive at the Gate
If boarding hasn’t started and your flight is scheduled to depart in 10 minutes, it’s safe to assume something is amiss. Gate agents aren’t always the quickest to announce a delay, and it’s possible your plane hasn’t even arrived from whichever city it’s coming from. If you don’t see a plane waiting at your gate, you can check its current whereabouts by searching for the flight number on FlightAware.com to get a sense of how much longer you’ll be waiting until it arrives.
Make sure you’re signed up for text or email alerts from your airline, as these sometimes come even before the delay has been officially called out at the gate.
In the immediate moments after a cancellation or serious delay has been announced, resist the urge to join the angry mob at the gate counter. By the time you reach the front of the line, all the available seats on the next flight might have already been snatched up. Instead, dial the airline’s customer service department as you make your way to a less frenzied general ticketing counter elsewhere in the terminal.
When you do finally speak with an agent, in person or on the phone, be polite. No matter how inconvenienced or angry you may be, yelling at an airline rep isn’t likely to improve your situation.
Know Your Rights in Case of Mechanical Issues
In cases where the delay or cancellation is caused by “irregular operations” such as a mechanical problem, some airlines will rebook you on the next available flight, even if it happens to be on a competing airline. Not all airlines will do this, and even the ones that do might hesitate to offer until prodded by you. To find out exactly what your airline’s policies are on delays and cancellations, study up on its contract of carriage. All fine print and legalese, it’s certainly not the most exciting read, but it can be useful when things go wrong. Before you fly, have a copy of your airline’s contract of carriage at the ready, printed or on your smartphone, should you need to refer to it.
In the chaotic aftermath of a cancellation, it’s entirely possible that your frazzled airline rep may not be aware of every alternative itinerary to get you to your destination. Research other possible routes in advance and be prepared to offer up other flights that work for you. If you search for a few flights on other airlines within a few hours of your original flight, you’re way ahead of the game when you try to transfer your ticket to another airline. Ultimately, the original airline has to sign off on the transfer.
Check the Weather Before You Go
Weather forecasting is pretty reliable 48 to 72 hours out, so be on the lookout for any potential situations that could cause an airport delay.
No time to keep your eye on the brewing storms? KnowDelay can do it for you. The service uses weather tracking and airline flight schedules to predict whether your flight might be impacted by poor weather—at no charge. It covers 36 of the United States’ busiest airports. Create an account to track your flights and receive alerts as far as three days in advance about potential weather problems. You can decide ahead of time to rebook your flight before it’s canceled.
Know Your Rights When Flights Are Delayed or Canceled Due to Weather
When a particularly nasty storm causes thousands of flights to be delayed or canceled, the airlines are in a mad scramble to reschedule and accommodate passengers however they can. If weather conditions appear just as iffy in your connecting city, you can ask to be rerouted through a different one.
The rules vary by airline, but refer back to your airline’s contract of carriage for details on what they’re willing to do for you in the event of excessive delays and cancellations. Some may provide meal or hotel vouchers. They don’t always offer, so don’t hesitate to ask.
Most airlines waive change fees during major weather events, so you can reschedule even before you get to the airport. If you’re not thrilled with your rebooking options available, you may request a refund even when your original ticket is nonrefundable.
Consider Getting a Hotel Reservation
Some hotels don’t charge your card until you show up at the front desk, so it’s usually safe to book a room and cancel if your flight does take off reasonably on time. Make sure to check the cancellation policy first before booking. (Many hotels will charge you if you don’t cancel at least 24 hours in advance.)
When an airport delay happens, you won’t be the only one scrambling for an airport-adjacent hotel room at the last minute. Beat the crowds by outsmarting them: Add a last-minute hotel-booking app or two to your smartphone, so if you do need to grab a hotel room you can do it fast.
Save Key Numbers in Your Phone
You don’t need the memory of an elephant to be able to call a reservation site, a hotel, your airline, or any travel company. Just save these numbers in your phone before your trip starts. Include the numbers for your airline, a nearby airport hotel, and your booking site or travel agent, if you used one. (If you have elite status of any kind, use the phone number for frequent flyers to get better service.)
Buy Travel Insurance
Many travel insurance policies include coverage that will cover hotel rooms, meals, or other expenses associated with flight delays. Of course, you’ll need to purchase before your trip to have that protection. Any storm system that develops before you buy a policy will likely be excluded from coverage.
Tracy Stewart’s travel advice has been featured in outlets including the Washington Post, Consumer Reports, and Frommer’s.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ed Hewitt, Christine Sarkis, Jessica Labrencis, and Michele Sponagle contributed to this story.
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