What was already a peak week for travel has been made considerably more complicated by a compounding series of events. Winter storms nationwide grounded thousands of flights; Southwest alone canceled over 70 percent of its flights on Monday and over 60 percent on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. Rows of luggage crowd baggage claim areas at airports across the US and Canada. Lines to reach airline customer service desks snaked throughout terminals. Stranded passengers are faced with limited flight options, and what alternatives are available often have price tags exceeding $1,000 for a single one-way ticket.
“Normally during the holidays, there’s not an excess of seats, there’s no slack in the system when something goes wrong to quickly recover. That’s the case across airlines,” says travel expert Gary Leff of the travel blog View From The Wing. “Then that means that there’s even less than normal in terms of additional seats that a Southwest passenger might find elsewhere.”
If you have an upcoming flight or are stuck at the airport wondering if you’ll ever make it to your destination, you have a few options: reschedule, refund, request, or wait it out. Here are some answers to help you make a plan for one of the most hectic holiday travel seasons in recent memory.
What’s going on with air travel right now?
About 60 percent of the US population was under some form of winter weather advisory through the holiday weekend, according to the National Weather Service. Snow, freezing rain, ice, and high winds impacted the east and Midwest, the Plains, and the Pacific Northwest. As a result, thousands of flights were canceled, with Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Phoenix airports experiencing the greatest disruptions.
Of all the canceled flights, most are from Southwest Airlines, which is expecting to operate only about a third of its flights for the remainder of the year. Extreme weather was the tipping point for a bevy of cascading issues, Leff says. Between a lack of staff, antiquated scheduling systems, and out-of-position planes and crew, the airline is unable to get flights off the ground. “There was a plane from Tampa to Denver that flew most of the way there and turned around because there was nobody on the ground to receive it,” Leff says. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the department would hold the airline accountable for the disruption.
I have an upcoming flight. What can I do to prepare?
Before you leave for the airport, make sure you’ve signed up for text alerts and downloaded the airline’s app (turn on its notifications) or the FlightAware app to get real-time flight information. If your flight is delayed or canceled well in advance, you can make adjusted plans from the comfort of a hotel or loved one’s home instead of the chaos of the airport.
Take a few photos of your luggage so that if it gets lost down the line, you can provide an accurate description of what it looks like. Leff also recommends putting an Apple AirTag in your luggage so you can track your suitcase’s exact location, whether it’s halfway across the country or in a pile at baggage claim.
Familiarize yourself with the services your airline provides in the event of a delay or cancellation so you know how to advocate for yourself and other passengers. The US Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard details various amenities airlines have committed to providing should a flight be canceled for reasons the airline can control, like maintenance or crew problems, but not weather. These services include rebooking your ticket for free on the same airline (or a partner airline) or a meal voucher for delays longer than three hours.
Your credit card might also offer trip delay coverage or baggage delay coverage where the cost of your hotel, meals, and expenses are reimbursed. Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Platinum Card from American Express, and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card are among the credit cards offering these protections, but check your credit card contract for exact details.
Some airlines, like United, American, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines are waiving change fees if your flight this week is impacted by weather. So if you have some flexibility, you may want to try to change your flight if you’re traveling to, say, Buffalo, whose airport just recently reopened.
My flight is perpetually delayed. I need to get out of this airport.
Southwest Airlines is offering reimbursement for passengers flying between December 24, 2022, and January 2, 2023, who incur “reasonable” additional expenses for hotels, rental cars, food, and tickets on other airlines while experiencing significant delays or a canceled flight. “What people don’t know is what’s going to be considered reasonable,” Leff says. “And so there’s a risk that if you buy that last-minute flight on another airline, it’s the only seat that’s available, and it’s $2,000. What is Southwest going to say? Are they going to pay for five nights in a hotel until they could get you where you were trying to get or are they going to pay for three meals a day during that period?” You’ll need to cover the expenses upfront and submit receipts via email. According to a statement from Southwest, requests for reimbursement will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The airline does not have a target date by which to issue refunds but said “it will take a little longer than normal given the volume.”
For delays that extend overnight due to controllable issues, many other airlines — including American, Delta, Spirit, Southwest, and United — offer complimentary hotel accommodations, per the DOT Airline Customer Service Dashboard. Many of these airlines offer free transportation to the hotel, too. Again, extreme weather doesn’t fall under the “controllable” reasons an airline would offer these services, but it’s still worth asking.
Passengers dealing with “significant” delays are entitled to a full refund should they choose not to travel. The DOT hasn’t defined what constitutes a “significant” delay, but rather decides on a case-by-case basis taking into account the length of the delay and the length of the flight. Under normal circumstances, refunds would be issued fairly quickly; given the scale of the current disruptions, Leff says it’s difficult to predict when passengers can expect refunds.
For airlines that won’t cover hotel stays and meals, go to the baggage service office in baggage claim and ask about the distressed traveler rate, Leff says. “When the airline is not paying for the hotel, they may have discounts available on hotels through their own negotiated rates, and the hotels provide that discount because they want the business from the airline,” he explains. “So you may get a better rate than if you were booking directly yourself. It’s not a publicly available rate.”
My flight was canceled. What now?
Regardless of the reason for cancellation, every passenger is entitled to a full refund should they choose not to rebook.
For delays and cancellations, Leff says the best course of action is to avoid long lines at the airline counter at the airport. “Standing in hours and hours-long lines is probably not going to get you information that’s even going to be useful,” he says. But do exhaust all of your options: Try calling, getting in touch via social media, chatting through the mobile app or with staff at the club level, looking at other flight options on other airlines, or plotting a route via train or bus. “You are best off looking at flight options yourself as though you were buying anew, knowing that with a canceled flight you’ll get your money back, and then you have at least the option to submit to Southwest receipts for some level of reimbursement,” Leff says of passengers dealing with that particular situation.
Just remember the airline staff, on the phone and at the airport, is not responsible for the meltdown and are not the people on whom to unleash your frustrations. Be nice.
I finally landed. Where’s my luggage?
Along with flight disruptions are the mystifying routes of passenger luggage. When your bags don’t make it to your destination, speak with a member of airport staff immediately. They may have paperwork for you to fill out describing the physical attributes of your suitcase and its contents. Hopefully, the airport can locate and deliver your bag to you in a timely manner. (Before you depart, make sure there are no irreplaceable items, like keys, or things you’ll need immediately, like medication, in your checked luggage.)
The most an airline can pay a passenger for permanently lost luggage is $3,800 for domestic flights. Again, airlines may reimburse you for items you needed to purchase while your suitcase was missing, so keep receipts.
Air travel is exponentially more stressful at the moment. Have a plan (and a backup plan), know what expenses airlines will cover, and try to anticipate potential headaches.
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