There are thousands who can relate to the news over the past two weeks of Edward Snowden’s Moscow Airport excursion. Few, I would hope, can relate to being on the run from the United States government, but life at the airport is something even the most moderate traveller can speak to. For those who have experienced cancelled, delayed, missed, or overbooked flights, it would be hard to imagine Snowden faces a more severe punishment than such a purgatorial existence. There are essentially three major cases in which most travellers find themselves stuck in limbo and navigating you’re way around each is an important part of any sojourner’s toolkit.
The Airline’s Fault
The first most common cause of delayed or missed flights is decidedly the most frustrating but can be the easiest to navigate around: blame the airline. These are most often maintenance-related delays and due to the belt-tightening by airlines in recent years, using fewer planes for stranger routes, these can and often do occur with absolutely no warning until you are in line at the gate. If a delay looks like it’s going to cause you to miss a connection, composure and quick communication is key. Before you open your mouth the only problem is your missed flight. If you approach a desk attendant with rage and anger your mood becomes a new problem to solve first. This is both human nature and standard customer service procedure. Most airlines will rebook you onto a new flight plan or even endorse your ticket to another carrier at no charge so that you can make your arrival at your final destination relatively close to your expected time.
Sounds easy enough, right? Still there are several key details to this strategy you MUST keep in mind. According to the US Department of Transportation airlines do not guarantee any flight times and there are absolutely no federal regulations regarding what airlines can or must do in the event of delayed and cancelled flights. For example, United Airlines’ policy states that they will try to rebook you if you are delayed more than two hours but makes several exceptions to this: “when the delay of cancellation is due to something beyond our control we typically do not rebook customers on other airlines.” They also go on to state that rebooking on other airlines is not typically done in Chicago, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Guam, Washington DC, Denver, or Cleveland. Not like a lot of people travel to or through those places anyway…
Researching as many possible flights and airlines as you can before your trip will help you avoid the shock, if not the frustration, of being caught in this situation. It’s also important to remember that airlines go out of their way to make sure you can’t communicate with the people who are really able to say what’s going on. The customer service representative you deal with is not a pilot, air traffic control operator, or maintenance worker. Think of this as a collaborative problem solving, not a “me vs. you” situation and you’re bound to have better luck making your case.
The Traveller’s Fault
In the second case of airport detention, your humility will beat out any research or logical argument you can make. Hard as it is to admit traffic, long lines, and security delays are considered your fault as far as missed flights are concerned. If you thought airlines had no actual responsibility when delays where their fault, wait till the blame falls on you. Few if any airlines are willing to do much beyond tell you when the next available flight is and ask for your credit card if you miss a flight. But there’s another way to view what seems like the easiest way to lose a few hundred dollars. If there’s no policy requiring an airline to help you it means there’s nothing restricting them from helping you either. Booking a standby ticket can be scary for some, unless you have access to the flight manifest and can tell how full or empty a plane may be; not all one-way flights are automatically grouped together to build a flight plan on airline websites unless they are profitable enough for the airline to sell; airline mergers are a common news topic these days but frequently only the big names get attention while there are many smaller airlines whose flights can be booked by the big guys even though the general public may not be aware. All this information is something that may be hard for the self-directed traveller to find but airline desk attendants can readily tell you the manifest for most any flight, what other flights are running that day, and what other airlines they are partnered with. Take advantage of the freedom of this policy-free area of airline regulations and again make your desk attendant a comrade, not nemesis.
“Acts of God”
The most vague aspect of traveller rights, airline responsibilities, and all around travel planning is what’s commonly referred to as an “act of god”. Weather, mechanical failure of an unrelated plane stuck on the tarmac, or even problems at your arrival airport, potentially halfway around the world can stall your plane’s departure. These instances are neither your, the traveller’s, fault nor the airlines and so knowing who to contact and how to go about rebooking can be tricky.
In addition to calm and friendly communication and proper planning, these instances will typically involve a bit more flexibility on your part than the other two. Jennifer Alford of the business travel service provider Concur said on their blog, “in my experience, the airlines will do all they can to ensure that you are back in the air as quickly as possible,” and that airlines frequently do not charge passengers to rebook due to weather-related issues. But this courtesy will likely only extend to flights within that airline and it would be rare you’d be the only one vying for a new seat so standby on potentially overbooked flights is a real probability.
There are still some options that while not ideal, can take a little of the edge off. Hotel/flight packages are common in the travel industry these days and if you can relinquish your need to get on the absolutely first flight you can, you may be able to find a great deal with the help of a desk attendant and pay significantly less for both the plane and hotel room than you would jumping from gate to gate waiting standby until the last plane leaves you with no recourse but to book a room anyway. Additionally, as opposed to instances of traffic or single flight delays, “acts of God” tend to affect most if not all the passengers in the airport who all have different flight plans and time restrictions. Look to your fellow groundlings to see if someone has to give up a seat on a flight you yourself could wait and take. Don’t forget to give as much as you receive in these cases, when you have little else to go on, karma can’t hurt.
You don’t have to be dodging treason charges to feel caught between a rock and a hard place when flights are delayed or cancelled. Some final thoughts to keep in mind as you plan and prepare for your trips: you are in worse shape than someone else at the airport and someone else is in a lot worse shape than you are, always, every time. A depressing way to look at it may be that when it comes to air travel things can always get worse but I prefer to see the glass as half-full: you are never in as big of a bind as you think. It’s also important no matter of which of the three instances mentioned above you find yourself in that due to the unpredictable nature of flying, there are no hard and fast rules. Depending on whose fault a missed flight is an airline may be more likely to use certain practices over others but nothing is set in stone.
Use fellow travellers, compassion for those trying to assist you, and a wide view of what possibilities may exist rather than take a black and white approach to missed flights. Finally, know that for financial and logistical purposes it is far less in an airline’s interest to keep you on the ground than to get you on a plane as quickly as possible. You’ve already paid for your seat so the quicker they can get you out of a line and get new customers in, the better. Be an opportunist rather than an antagonist and take the best course of action to get you on the quickest course towards your destination.