Welcome to Cruising Altitude, a new column from USA TODAY dedicated to travel trends.
While reporting on recent United Airlines operational difficulties, someone I spoke to told me that he had looked at the Department of Transportation’s dashboard and found that the airline was not following its own delay and cancellation policies.
At first glance, it seemed true: United was giving travelers extra flexibility to book their tickets at no additional cost, but none of the stranded passengers I spoke to said anything about the voucher offer. hotel or meals.
Here’s the thing though: the source looking at the dashboard wasn’t quite right.
United Airlines has committed to rebooking passengers on United or other partner airlines at no additional cost and to providing hotel and meal vouchers and ground transportation in the event of significant controllable delays or cancellations, but the issues last week were deemed beyond the airline’s control by the DOT, which meant United was not responsible for those commitments.
At least not initially.
United said delays and cancellations early last week were due to staffing issues related to weather and air traffic control, although later in the week many crews were out of order. place due to earlier delays, the causes were somewhat of a moving target, and in some cases the airline began offering hotel vouchers and the like, according to passengers.
It’s frustrating for travelers because whether your delay is due to weather or a lack of staff, you’re still stranded, but the cause of the delay can have a big effect on what the airline needs to do to help you. .
Here’s what you need to know.
Controllable vs. uncontrollable delays
The DOT distinguishes between operational issues that are within the control of an airline and those that are not.
“A controllable flight cancellation or delay is essentially a delay or cancellation caused by the airline. Examples: maintenance or crew issues; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and refueling,” a document from the DOWRY.
But issues such as weather or air traffic control staffing, which were the source of last week’s headaches in the North East, are outside the airline’s purview and are therefore considered uncontrollable.
Federal Aviation Administration data shows weather has caused around 65% of airline delays so far this year, meaning a large majority of delayed flights are not covered by compensation promises. airlines.
How to check the reason for the delay or cancellation of your flight?
There’s usually no central repository for the cause of airline delays or cancellations, but carriers usually let passengers know what’s behind a schedule change.
Your best bet to find out what happened is to check your airline’s app or any email you receive from the carrier regarding your flight. If you are already at the airport, you can speak to a gate agent or another customer service employee.
The FAA also has a website that lists general air traffic restrictions by airport, and this can be a good way to find out if it’s weather or air traffic control personnel issues that are delaying your flight.
What is due to you if your flight is delayed or cancelled?
If your flight is canceled for any reason, your airline is obliged to reimburse you in cash even if you have purchased a non-refundable ticket if you choose not to travel on the alternative flights offered to you.
It’s when your flight is delayed that things get a little complicated, and the distinction between controllable and uncontrollable delays becomes important.
“(With) something that is controllable by the airline, the traveler, customer, should be compensated.” Nadia Henry, who goes through Sparkle professionally and founded the travel agency Travel with Sparkle, told me. “(The) one thing that shouldn’t be compensated (by the airline) is anything weather-related.”
Air traffic control staffing is also generally considered a cause that does not require compensation from airlines.
Individual airlines are free to set their own policies, and the Department of Transport dashboard linked above gives an overview of what each carrier offers for controllable delays and cancellations.
How to request additional compensation from airlines for controllable delays, cancellations?
Many times you will have to speak to a customer service agent or even wait in line at the airport to get things like hotel and meal vouchers.
Refunds or credits can often be processed over the phone or via airline customer service chat features, and it may be worth waiting a few days for call volume to decrease if all you’re looking for is a refund. and you don’t need it. be re-let. Airlines rarely compensate you after the fact if you paid out of pocket for a hotel, meal, or ground transportation as a result of a delay, but a travel insurance policy often will, so getting one can be such a big advantage. In the very rare cases where airlines offer compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, they will tell you what you need to do to claim it, as Southwest did when it crashed over the winter.
United Airlines also recently updated its app to automatically send hotel, meal and rideshare vouchers to eligible travelers during the disruptions, but I’ve yet to hear feedback on how these features fared. last week.
How can I protect myself during uncontrollable delays?
Although airlines aren’t required to compensate you for uncontrollable issues — and usually don’t — you can always take steps to fix things on your own.
“The protection you should get would be traveler’s insurance,” Sparkle said. “If your flight is delayed or you need additional accommodation, they can reimburse you for those things as well.”
But, she added, not all travel insurance is created equal. Many credit cards, for example, offer some form of travel insurance when used for travel-related expenses, but not all of these policies include coverage for weather-related delays or cancellations.
Sparkle said it’s important to find a reputable insurance provider and make sure you understand the details of your policy so you don’t end up paying out of pocket for expenses you thought were covered.
Cruising altitude last week:Congress is about to authorize 5 years of FAA funds. How it impacts you.
Tips for summer travel
It all boils down to what I wrote a few weeks ago: stay calm if something is wrong and give yourself more time to deal with the crowds at the airport.
“Be diligent and make sure you check in for your flight the night before to ensure there are no cancellations or delays. Make sure you arrive at the airport in sufficient time Also, it would be great if you could carry on luggage instead of checking your luggage if you’re going away for a weekend,” Sparkle said. “Definitely bring your patience with you and make sure you get insurance journey.”
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]