A busy holiday weekend may be marred by flight delays and cancellations for thousands of travelers — and experts suggest that consumers understand their financial recourse ahead of time should their travel plans get interrupted.
“It’s good for people to know they have rights,” said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “That way they’re empowered to stand up for themselves.”
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Why are flight interruptions expected?
Over 2.8 million travelers are expected to pass through airport security checkpoints on Friday — a single-day record, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The TSA is prepared for “sustained higher passenger volumes” throughout the summer, with June 29 through July 5 being the busiest period.
A technology issue may also snarl air travel this weekend. Starting Saturday, wireless carriers will be allowed to boost their 5G signal power, and planes that aren’t retrofitted with certain equipment to prevent interference from such transmissions won’t be allowed to land when visibility is poor, as during bad weather, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“It’s a whole mix of factors,” said Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “We do expect to see a lot of delays, unfortunately.”
What is your recourse for a delayed or canceled flight?
Travelers impacted by a flight disruption may have some recourse. But the rules differ depending on the situation and airline.
Federal law doesn’t require airlines to pay compensation to passengers for delays, Palmer said.
If airlines cancel a flight for any reason, passengers are legally entitled to a full refund, including for ticket price, taxes, baggage fees, extra charges and ancillary fees. Travelers must receive that refund within seven business days if they paid by credit card, and within 20 days if by cash or check.
“You don’t have to accept a rebooking, voucher or anything,” Murray said. “They have to give you a refund if that’s what you want.”
Of course, that policy doesn’t necessarily help defray other incurred costs like food and lodging, or help travelers who would rather continue to their destination instead of accept a refund.
Here, airlines have some discretion to dole out money — especially if a delay or cancellation is their fault and not due to something beyond their control, like bad weather.
“There’s no reason not to ask,” Palmer said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard outlines passenger rights for specific airlines. The list outlines commitments made by the 10 largest carriers in the event of “controllable” cancellations and delays.
“These aren’t suggestions,” Murray said of the commitments. “It’s binding.”
For example: All major carriers will rebook passengers on the same airline at no additional cost for “significant” delays and will cover meals if there’s a delay of three hours or more. Some will rebook on a partner airline at no additional cost.
All major airlines (except for Frontier) will cover a hotel stay and transportation to the hotel in the event of an overnight cancellation. Six of 10 will rebook on another airline at no extra cost. Just two offer credits or travel vouchers if a cancellation causes a wait of at least three hours.
Even if a delay isn’t their fault, many airlines will transfer your ticket to another airline’s flight with available seats at no additional cost — if you ask, according to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
Of course, none of these options help travelers who, in the face of a flight disruption, opt for another mode of transit like a rental car, Palmer said.
“I think this is a really common situation for people” that could come with “a lot of extra costs,” she said.
How to reduce the odds of flight woes
Here are some general travel tips from experts to reduce the odds that a delayed or cancelled flight will impact you.
- Fly early in the day. This is generally when airlines experience the fewest disruptions; if there is one, passengers would likely have ample flight alternatives during the remainder of the day, depending on the route and carrier.
- Try to avoid a connecting flight. Taking two flights instead of one doubles your odds of a disruption.
- Choose an airline with multiple flights per day to your location, if possible. If a disruption occurs, there are more chances to get on another flight.
- Check if your credit card offers a payout for flight delays and cancellations. If it does, and you purchased your travel with that card, you may be entitled to certain benefits.