WASHINGTON — Amid peak summer travel, thousands of air travelers faced flight cancellations and delays this weekend and Monday as thunderstorms rolled in across the U.S. East Coast and Midwest.
In addition to bad weather, a technology failing also contributed to to airline disruptions. The Federal Aviation Administration briefly paused operations at Washington, D.C.-area airports Sunday evening due to a problem with the communications system at a major air traffic control facility. Departures resumed after repairs were completed.
Beyond D.C., a chain of flights were also delayed or halted at other major travel hubs — including New York, Chicago and Atlanta — as thunderstorms moved across the country.
Nearly 2,000 U.S. flights were canceled on Saturday and Sunday combined, according to flight tracking service FlightAware, and more than 1,400 U.S. flights had been canceled as of 2:45 p.m. ET Monday. Thousands of additional travelers experienced delays.
Staying calm — and knowing your rights — can go a long way if your flight is canceled, experts say. Here’s some of their advice for dealing with a flight cancellation:
MY FLIGHT WAS CANCELED. WHAT NEXT?
If you still want to get to your destination, most airlines will rebook you for free on the next available flight as long as it has seats, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
If you want to cancel the trip, you are entitled to a full refund, even if you bought non-refundable tickets. You’re also entitled to a refund of any bag fees, seat upgrades or other extras.
Kurt Ebenhoch, a consumer travel advocate and former airline spokesperson, has stressed that travelers are eligible for a refund, not just vouchers for future travel. If you do take a voucher, make sure you inquire about blackout dates and other restrictions on its use.
CAN I ASK TO BE BOOKED ON ANOTHER AIRLINE’S FLIGHT?
Yes. Airlines aren’t required to put you on another airline’s flight, but they can, and sometimes do, according to the DOT. Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, previously recommended researching alternate flights while you’re waiting to talk to an agent. Agents are typically under a lot of pressure when a flight is canceled, so giving them some options helps.
Ebenhoch also suggested looking for alternative airports that are close to your original destination.
IS THE AIRLINE REQUIRED TO GIVE ME A HOTEL ROOM, OR OTHER COMPENSATION?
No. As announced last month, the Biden adminstration is seeking to require that airlines compensate travelers and cover their meals and hotel rooms if they are stranded for reasons within the carrier’s control — but, as of now, each airline still has its own policies about providing for customers whose flights are canceled, according to the DOT.
Many airlines do offer accommodations, so you should check with their staff. The DOT also has an online dashboard that allows travelers to compare cancelation and delay policies of major carriers.
I’M FACING A LONG WAIT TO REBOOK. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
If someone in your traveling party is at a higher level in a frequent flier program, use the number reserved for that level to call the airline, Ebenhoch said. You can also try calling an international help desk for the airline, since those agents have the ability to make changes.
HOW CAN I AVOID THIS IN THE FUTURE?
Ebenhoch said nonstop flights and morning flights are generally the most reliable if you can book them. If you’re worried about making it to the airport in time for a morning flight, he said, consider staying at a hotel connected to the airport the night before. And consider flying outside of busy dates.
Klee recommended comparing airlines’ policies on the DOT’s service dashboard. He also suggests reserving multiple flights and then canceling the ones you don’t use, as long as the airline will refund your money or convert it into a credit for a future flight.
ARE FLIGHT CANCELATIONS TRENDING LOWER IN 2023?
Flight cancellations trended lower throughout the spring of 2023 than last year, according to data from the FAA.
Industry officials argue that carriers have fixed problems that contributed to a surge in flight cancellations and delays last summer, when 52,000 flights were nixed from June through August. Airlines have hired about 30,000 workers since then, including thousands of pilots, and they are using bigger planes to reduce flights but not the number of seats.
Still, officials warn of lingering staffing shortages, notably among key air traffic controllers. The FAA is training about 3,000 more controllers, but they won’t be ready for this summer’s travel. The agency resorted to nudging airlines to reduce flights in the New York City area this summer, and it opened 169 new flight paths over the East Coast to reduce bottlenecks.
In a government audit published last week, the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the FAA has made “limited efforts” to have adequate staffing at critical air traffic control facilities, noting that the agency “continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.”
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