Don't count on royal treatment when flights get canceled, delayed
By Thurston Hatcher
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- His flight gets canceled and he lands comfy, complimentary accommodations at the Airport Ritz. Yours gets the ax, and you're curled up overnight on the airport floor.
So what gives?
Contrary to popular belief, airlines won't necessarily put you up in a hotel, feed you or otherwise compensate you when they cancel or delay your flight.
Although travelers who get bumped from overbooked flights typically are entitled to compensation, there are no federal requirements governing how an airline handles delayed passengers. Their fate depends on several factors, including what airline they're flying, what caused the delay, and how far along they are in their journey.
"They really are not under an obligation to house you or feed you or all these things people would like to think that they will do," said Nancy McKinley of the International Airline Passengers Association.
But just because carriers don't have to assist stranded passengers doesn't mean they won't. It certainly never hurts to ask -- some airlines that don't volunteer compensation still be may willing to provide it on request.
What to expect
Carriers each establish their own policies about what they will do for delayed travelers at the airport, many of which are posted on their Web sites.
They typically will try to rebook travelers on the next available flight, and in many cases will assist with food and possibly lodging.
United Airlines spokesman Matt Triaca said United's gate agents have considerable latitude in deciding what it will do for delayed passengers.
"Our agents are empowered to make the decisions and really do what's in the best interest of customers, regardless of the situation," he said.
United and other carriers generally offer more assistance to passengers if the delay stems from a mechanical problem rather than something well beyond the airline's control, such as weather.
But if passengers get stuck at an airport in a snowstorm, their odds of getting much more than a "good luck" get slimmer. "If it's a large weather event affecting all of the airlines, it's very hard to accommodate everyone in a hotel room, and generally we don't," Triaca said.
In 1999, the United States-based airline members of the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, agreed to a "service commitment" that included a promise to notify customers of all known delays and cancellations and clearly spell out airlines' policies for accommodating passengers who are delayed overnight.
American Airlines' customer service plan says it will reroute passengers on the next flight with available seats. It says it will provide overnight accommodations, if they're available, if the delay or cancellation was caused by events within the carrier's control.
"If a flight is adversely affected by events beyond our control, you are responsible for your own overnight accommodations, meals and incidental expenses," it says.
U.S. Airways' Web site says it will arrange for overnight accommodations if you're at a connecting point on your trip and a flight is canceled, or if your return flight from your destination is canceled, so long as the problems are within the airline's control.
The airlines will not provide accommodations from the originating point of the trip, or if the delay or cancellations resulted from circumstances beyond the airline's control, such as weather or air traffic control.
Delta simply says it will provide full and timely information on the status of delayed and canceled flights, including providing meals and hotel accommodations "when customers who are away from their home or destination are inconvenienced overnight due to a delay or cancellation within Delta's control."
Amid increasing delays and cancellations, carriers say they are working to make sure travelers don't get stuck at the airport in the first place.
"Now is a good time to see the proactive approach airlines are taking in dealing with the issue of delays and cancellations," said Diana Cronan, a spokeswoman for the ATA, which represents major U.S. airlines.
When United encountered delays last summer due to bad weather and labor troubles, it canceled thousands of flights well in advance. Delta also canceled flights leading up to the holidays.
"When storms are moving into areas, airlines have been proactive in canceling flights and getting the word out to passengers," she said.
They also have boosted efforts to help passengers find out about cancellations through their Web sites and automated phone systems.
Keep your cool
United's Triaca encourages people to call United's toll-free number in advance, check a flight's status on its Web site, or register for its flight paging information.
Travelers should always provide phone and pager numbers to the airlines so they can contact ticket-holders if a flight has been canceled or delayed, McKinley said.
"They will make an effort to try to call and reschedule," she said. "I've had it happen to me, so I feel pretty confident they will at least try."
McKinley urged fliers to keep their cool with the airlines when a flight gets delayed or canceled.
"I think it's really important for people to try to remain calm and give them an opportunity to try to solve it," she said.
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