What IS going on at airports around America, and the world for that matter?
If you’ve been watching the news lately, or you were unfortunate enough to be a victim of this new phenomenon, then you’ve probably noticed that flights are getting canceled and delayed like never before.
Lately, flight cancellations and delays for single weekends have been in the tens of thousands. Return flights aren’t faring much better either.
Travel industry experts say that the chaos isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and that we should buckle our seatbelts for one of the busiest (and cancel-iest) travel seasons in history.
But why are so many flights canceled and delayed nowadays if the travel industry has spectacularly recovered from its pandemic lows?
The pandemic created some very long-term problems that we haven’t seen before, and perhaps we weren’t expecting. Combined with the classic reasons for delays and cancellations, it’s the perfect storm for some awful air travel experiences.
In this article, we’ve broken down the unique reasons for so many delayed and canceled flights lately. Besides that, we’ve got you covered on how to avoid delayed and canceled flights and what to do if you find yourself in that situation.
Read on to see what’s going on and how to still have a great vacation this travel season.
Why Are Flights Cancelled and Delayed So Often Lately?
First of all, several factors have created airline chaos recently. Some are results of pandemic economics, while you probably recognize others that have always existed.
Airline & Airport Staffing Shortages and Optimistic Schedules
Many airlines around the world are struggling with employees on all fronts. This includes not only the flight attendants and pilots who get you from point A to point B, but the ramp workers, aircraft cleaners, gate agents, and others who are responsible for making sure you can depart from point A.
One simple reason for this is that many employees are forced to call in sick because they have caught Covid-19 or have been in contact with someone else who has, and in both cases must isolate. A huge number of sick calls can make operating every flight as planned difficult.
However, there is a more complex reason for the staffing shortages. When the pandemic began, airlines had tens of thousands of employees who simply weren’t needed because planes weren’t flying.
These employees may have been laid off or offered generous packages to voluntarily resign or retire. Many others simply decided they no longer wanted to work in such an unstable industry.
Now that the industry has come roaring back to life faster than most people predicted, airlines are stuck without staff ranging from tug drivers to pilots.
Airline employees can’t be hired and put on the job as quickly as staff can in other industries due to the training and background checks that are required for their jobs.
On top of all this, airlines are very excited to be able to pack their planes full again. Therefore, they have packed their schedules full, despite probably knowing that a good portion of them simply won’t be possible to operate.
Consequently, we are left with not enough professionals to operate way too many flights. The result is a ton of flights delayed and canceled as well as many unhappy air travelers.
Air Traffic Control Staff Shortages
The men and women who make sure the skies are safe for everyone are very necessary to flight operations, and their employer, the FAA, has its fair share of staff shortages as well. The workers in the tower are also prone to Covid sick calls and difficulties in hiring.
However, there is another factor in the struggle for controllers. The air traffic control workforce is an aging one. This is due to a hiring boom in 1981 after a situation when they all went on strike – and were subsequently fired, leading to 10,000 new employees.
Those new hires of 1981 are certainly approaching retirement age today, especially since there is a mandatory maximum age for this job. Since so many controllers of the same age were hired at once, they are also all retiring at once in recent years. This creates a massive workforce gap.
Air traffic controllers also aren’t very easily hired and put on the radios.
The process involves a difficult test, a medical and psychiatric examination, a security clearance investigation, around four months of initial training, a final exam that needs to be passed to continue, and then up to several years of on-the-job training.
Putting an air traffic controller on the job is no simple task, and for a good reason! However, it’s another unfortunate ingredient in a mess of flight cancellations and delays – after all, the planes can’t move without them.
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Labor Union Strike Action
This particular reason for delays and flight cancellations is one that hasn’t hit us hard in the US yet (though it could) but will certainly affect travelers to and from Europe much more often.
The unions that represent flight attendants, pilots, ground crews, airport security, air traffic control operators, and everyone else in the operation of a flight have been calling for strikes all over the continent.
These employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions for various reasons, but strikes have mainly been revolving around their pay not matching the rise of inflation.
This horrible inflation is something that the whole world is experiencing, and tens of thousands of airline industry employees are demanding more from their employers as the travel world roars back to life.
Industrial action has already been announced in the UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, and several Scandinavian countries. Many strikes have been intentionally scheduled throughout the summer specifically to disrupt this peak season as much as possible.
With a small amount of research, you can see when these strikes will take place so that you can at least prepare for the (likely) possibility that your flight will be affected. Visit the page of your airline that displays the latest travel information and disruptions to see if there is an entry.
However, note that airlines aren’t too excited to share this information and may also wait until the last minute to display it. Notice how in the screenshot above, Easyjet published that notice the day before the strike.
To avoid being surprised, a simple internet search of strikes involving your airline, airport, or country should allow you to find media articles with dates and information.
Weather Delays and Cancellations
As always, bad weather can cause a flight to be delayed until it passes or totally canceled. This is especially common in the winter months when snowy conditions can make runways unsafe, but bad weather can happen at any time – especially now thanks to climate change.
However, know that modern “all-weather” planes are designed to safely take off and land in many types of storms.
A bit of rain and wind should be no reason to delay or cancel a flight. The wind is actually only a problem when it’s blowing across a plane from side to side, and even then, it must be pretty strong to cause issues.
Don’t forget that unusual natural disasters can be lumped in with this type of delay. Years ago, the active volcano in Iceland erupted and spread a cloud of ash across thousands of miles over the Atlantic and Europe. This event paralyzed flights for weeks.
This issue can really compound the staffing problems we mentioned before. When an entire crew gets stranded overseas due to bad weather, it can throw the entire crewing schedule off after it’s already being stressed due to low staff numbers.
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Finally, this reason for delays and cancellations is another better-safe-than-sorry one. Just like your car, airplanes can get warning lights that keep them on the ground until everything is running smoothly.
Did you know that every time an airplane arrives at the gate, a certified mechanic examines it closely before it’s allowed to take off again?
Flashlights are shined into compartments, oil levels are verified, and the pilots are consulted to make sure the flight went normally.
This should make everyone feel even safer on the world’s safest form of transportation. When they catch something that needs extra attention, it may be inconvenient, but it should be appreciated.
Don’t blame airline staff for doing a good job – they’re saving lives!
What Can We Do?
Well, there’s not much you can do to prevent disruptions to flights. And unfortunately, we are going to be seeing a lot of those in the foreseeable future.
However, there are some simple preventative steps to take as well as rights and policies to know when flying. Most airlines aren’t exactly viewed as the country’s most customer-friendly businesses, and they often hide or bury this very important information that applies to you during canceled or delayed flights.
Check the Airline’s App
One easy step you can take is to download your airline’s app before your trip even starts. Besides being an easy way to not lose your boarding pass, having your reservation at your fingertips can be a major advantage when it comes to delayed flights and cancellations.
The app will show you your real-time flight status and scheduled departure time, your new boarding passes, any updated trip details, and your record locator number (which is important if you do choose to approach an agent).
Having all of this on your phone will make your experience much smoother in case something goes wrong.
We’ll expand on it below, but know that when your flight gets canceled, you will be put on any available seats on the next flight to your destination. This applies when flight delays will cause you to miss a connection as well.
When you use the app of your airline company, you may be put on a later flight automatically the moment your flight is canceled.
This can be a bright spot of convenience in a very inconvenient situation. It means you don’t need to call customer service, line up at the counter with everyone else, or stress about what happens next.
Take a look at United’s policy, as shown in the photo above. More than ever, they are actively trying to keep you away from their employees! And while we might otherwise view this negatively, their technology can be a relief when your flight is delayed or canceled.
Do Your Own Research Before Calling
If your airline doesn’t automatically rebook you on the next flight and show you on the app, or if you are unsatisfied with the options that they are offering, you may need to speak to a human being. This can be done at the airport or by calling a customer service center.
But before doing that, it will help if you go in knowing what you want. Instead of simply telling the agent you need to find the next flight and letting him or her do the searching, do it yourself and be upfront about what you found!
Your best friend for this search is probably one of the same ones you use to find flights in the first place (sites like Skyscanner or Momondo). However, you will use them a bit differently when it comes to finding a later flight after your flight is canceled or you miss a connection.
First, you’ll want to check the options on your original airline company, as this is the simplest rebooking possible. In my example above on Skyscanner, I’ve filtered the search to only show flights on Alaska Airlines.
This search will give you all possible flight options on your airline so you can identify your preferred routing, as well as back-ups, to present to the agent. Don’t forget to leave a bit of breathing room in between connections to avoid another mess.
Furthermore, don’t forget to check the “Nearby Airports” box before searching. This can make a big difference because sometimes a carrier will have no flights left for the day from your original departure point.
In our example above, expanding our search outside of JFK shows several options from LaGuardia Airport instead. Likewise, there are even more options if you don’t have to land at Miami International Airport and can instead go to Fort Lauderdale.
If time is precious and you want to get to your destination on the earliest flight, it could be well worth it to change your canceled flight’s arrival or departure airport.
Finally, they don’t want you to know it, but airlines can put you on another carrier’s flight if there are no better options to get you to your destination in a reasonable time.
Therefore, if all else fails, remove your airline filters on Skyscanner and Momondo to see all possible flights. Airlines will generally not put you on another carrier’s flight unless there are truly no other options.
There is one exception to using a flight search engine in these cases (and any case); Southwest Airlines.
Southwest does not allow its fares to be displayed on these third-party search sites. If you are flying on Southwest Airlines, you’ll have to do the research on their website or app.
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Check Your Airline’s Definition of a Significant Delay
Reading through various web pages of your airline’s website, you’ll find plenty of mentions of the phrase “Significant Delay.” Airlines take specifically defined measures when a flight is significantly delayed, and this is the reason for this language.
However, you might be confused as to what exactly constitutes a significant delay. The airlines are all as vague as possible about this because they’d rather make it hard for passengers to find the things that they are entitled to that cost them money.
Luckily, customers will find their airline’s definition of a significantly delayed flight relatively easy if they know where to look. That place is the contract of carriage, the legally binding document that states what the airline is responsible for in your transaction with them.
Most full-service airlines consider a delay of two or three hours to be significant. However, some low-cost carriers may allow for a full 24 hours. Be sure to look for the contract of carriage, preferably before the day you are due to fly – the example shown above is from Delta.
Know Your Rights to a Different Flight
When your flight is delayed and it causes you to miss a connection, or when your flight gets canceled, you are always entitled to a seat on another flight. Passengers never need to worry about being stranded and out of luck, as long as all flights are booked on the same reservation.
Sometimes, it isn’t always possible to continue your journey on the same day. When your flight is delayed overnight, the airline is responsible for providing you with a hotel room and related care in some circumstances.
Accommodations aren’t usually offered to passengers when the issue is caused by weather or something outside of the airline’s control. However, even this may be handled on a case-by-case basis, so be sure to ask while at the airport.
Importantly, don’t ever book a hotel room on your own if an airline representative has not specifically told you to do so. Even then, it would be best to have those instructions in writing. Take a look at American Airlines’ policy, for example, pictured above.
As you can see, customers may be out of luck if they don’t wait their turn for a voucher from a gate agent for a hotel room. If you are instructed to do it yourself, be sure to save absolutely everything in terms of bills and receipts. You will need them for reimbursement later.
Credits, Refunds, and Compensation for Canceled Flights
The next few points are very important ones because, once again, airlines will do their best to avoid paying for what they are responsible for. While we don’t have a ton of rights in the US like air travel passengers do in Europe, the DOT determines some cases where we certainly do.
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Know Your Rights to a Refund
First of all, let’s start with your most important question; when do the airlines owe us a refund?
A refund depends on the situation, and particular circumstances must occur to trigger this right.
When airlines cancel a flight for any reason, you are automatically entitled to a cash refund if you decide traveling is no longer worth it.
Airlines will present all of the other alternatives to customers first, such as available seats on a later flight, and if that fails, they will try to push you into taking a voucher for the amount you paid.
But when it comes down to it, a canceled flight means you can choose a cash refund if your ticket is no longer worth it to you.
As mentioned, this right is often buried in the contract of carriage and not really found anywhere else. Airlines will also present it as the last option, hoping you stop reading before then and to make you think the other options are the better ones.
Take a look at Rule 24, Section C, of United’s contract of carriage below – see if you can spot the right to a refund.
Did you notice that they don’t even use the word “canceled” or “cancellation”? Those sneaky devils!
It is a common tactic to simply refer to a flight cancellation as a “Schedule Change” since they, first of all, prefer to put you on a different flight (hence “changing” your schedule). It also helps make it more difficult for passengers to locate their entitlements in these cases.
To be clear, United is not the only offender – most major airlines employ the same methods.
This is one of the biggest reasons to always book directly with the airline if you can. When customers choose a third-party site like Expedia or Orbitz to buy their flight, they will, unfortunately, have to deal with them if a refund is due for some reason.
This adds an extra layer of headache for an already-inconvenienced traveler. Always book your ticket on the website of your carrier to avoid that.
When it comes to a canceled flight, you are covered in terms of abandoning the trip and opting for a refund. This is not always the case with a delay, however.
Airlines technically have no obligation to refund you if you no longer want to travel as a result of a delay, but most of them actually do offer one at some point.
This varies from airline to airline and is usually two or three hours for full-service carriers. But passengers may have to wait much, much longer before that option becomes available on a low-cost airline – like, 24 hours.
Again, take a look at the contract of carriage to see what the airline allows. Above is an example from JetBlue, which offers a refund after two hours of delay for those who no longer want to travel.
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Consider a Travel Credit With Caution
Have you noticed, especially during the pandemic, that airlines have been more than happy to offer a voucher for future travel when something goes wrong?
It might seem like a nice gesture, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all you’re left with.
Let’s start with the cases when airlines really are just being nice. If you experience a long delay, and especially if the airline was at fault, they might offer you some compensation in the form of a travel credit to simply apologize.
However, don’t be so quick to accept such an offer. Evaluate the situation to determine the likelihood that you won’t experience more issues, that you definitely don’t want to abandon your trip and ask for a refund, and that you won’t be staying overnight.
Take a look at our example in Hawaiian Airlines’ contract of carriage above. By accepting a travel credit, you are waving your rights to care from Hawaiian, such as a hotel room if you are stuck overnight(!), meals, and ground transportation if needed.
You might be asking, in what circumstances would a passenger accept such a bad deal? The answer is simple; if you live near the airport and don’t need any of that! In that case, take advantage of a voucher for your next trip. But if not, be very careful not to waive your benefits away.
Furthermore, don’t forget your right to a refund when it comes to canceled flights. Airlines will push you (very hard) to accept a travel voucher rather than a refund, often leading you to believe that it’s the only option. It’s not – if you want a refund, firmly repeat your choice.
In some cases, airlines may try to woo you into taking a voucher instead of a refund by offering a bonus value on top of your original ticket price.
This can be a nice little form of flight cancellation compensation, especially if you plan to travel again with the airline soon, so don’t hesitate to consider it if it’s a good deal.
How do I find the cheapest flights?
What should I do if my flight gets canceled?
First, check to see what your airline has already done for you. Many airlines will have already booked you on a new flight.
If not, use a site like Skyscanner to see what other flights you could possibly take, and then contact their customer service line to be put on one of them.
Don’t forget to contact your travel insurance provider, which may be included in the credit card you booked with, to see how they can help as well.
Do I get compensated if my flight is delayed?
If you are flying in the US, probably not – there aren’t really any regulations to compensate passengers for these inconveniences.
If you are flying to or from Europe, there is a good chance you are eligible for cash compensation. In that case, check the law known as EC261 to see if your flight applies – many factors go into determining the right to and amount of compensation.