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How to Capitalize on Flight Delays

As American Airlines’ labor dispute with its pilots causes a blizzard’s worth of delays and cancellations, passengers are understandably frustrated. But there are ways to make the best of a flight delay – besides waving a fist at the airport departures monitor.

Tyler Olson / Shutterstock.com

To quell the uproar, American has added extra staff, has canceled selected flights as early as possible and is letting customers fly standby at no extra charge, the company says. “American is endorsing tickets to other carriers, which it isn’t required to do under contract,” says Christopher Elliott, an airline-passenger advocate.

In most instances, passengers are given little notice of delays. But since those who act quickest in response to a delay tend to get the most satisfaction from the airlines, “the most powerful tool you have for a delayed flight is information,” says David Lytle, editorial director at Frommers.com. He says TripIt and GateGuru often deliver updates faster than the airlines, giving you a head start on other passengers. On an American Airlines flight from Chicago O’Hare to San Francisco on Sept. 17, he says, TripIt notified him of four delays before they appeared at the boarding gate.

Getting on that next flight also can mean facing an obstacle course. Travel-booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz, as well as the airlines, are required to alert customers of delays by email — so be sure to supply your email address at the time of booking, says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com. Customers should call the airline to barter for a better flight if they’ve been automatically rebooked by the airline. “Always have the number in your hand for reservations,” Lytle says. When a flight is delayed, he says, there will only be a finite number of seats available on other planes.

If the delay is caused by an issue within the airlines’ control — like mechanical issues, insufficient crew availability or lack of aircraft — “the airline must provide a hotel for stranded passengers, food and taxi vouchers and a seat on the next available flight,” says Kate Hanni, co-founder of the nonprofit organization FlyersRights.org. However, if the delay is caused by “an act of God” – like bad weather — the airline is not required to compensate passengers.

Since deregulation, not all airlines are required to book passengers on other airlines. Lytle says only some “legacy airlines” — American Airlines and United Airlines — adhere to the once-mandatory “Rule 240,” which required airlines to book passengers on the next available flight, regardless of the airline. JetBlue, Virgin America and Delta only do so at their discretion. “They are supposed to put you on a code-share partner or interline-agreement partner if they don’t have a seat on the mainline carrier,” Hanni says.

It may also pay to have your frequent-flier number handy, says Gregg Mauss, who runs Expeditions-Redefined, a New York-based luxury-travel firm. “It’s the best way of ensuring you’re at least higher up in the pecking order,” he says. “Airlines use very complex computer systems that attach a status to everyone flying.” The more information they have about your track record as a loyal customer, he says, the better.

Onboard delays are the worst, experts say. The Department of Transportation’s rules to protect airline passengers — updated last year — set a four-hour limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines, and a three-hour maximum for domestic U.S. flights. Most consumer advocates say that is still too long for passengers — especially seniors and those with young children. Carriers must ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are given adequate food and water after two hours, working lavatories and medical treatment.

Airlines are still allowed to overbook flights. However, passengers who aren’t rebooked on a flight within two hours for domestic flights and four hours for international trips, are entitled to monetary compensation of four times the ticket price (up to $1,300). The compensation cap was set at $800 before the government updated its rules last year. Of course, this won’t cover those passengers who miss their $5,000 cruise, says Todd Curtis, analyst and founder of AirSafe.com.

While it’s impossible to completely avoid delays, passengers can put the odds in their favor. One strategy is to book early nonstop flights and/or “originator flights,” which begin their journey from your airport, experts say. Saturdays have the least delays, Mauss says, while Sundays, Thursdays and Monday mornings are the worst. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics site, FlightStats.com, also has statistics on airline and airport delays. “The very best way to avoid delays is to use smaller airports in congested regions,” Mauss says.


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