How not to get canceled
Airlines are off to a bad start this summer. Here's how to avoid the chaos
The summer travel season is off to a terrible start.
Domestic airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights on Memorial Day weekend, according to tracking service FlightAware. That's some opening act.
The air carriers blamed the weather, COVID and air traffic. But that's nonsense. Airlines actually failed to plan for a strong recovery in passenger demand.
The spectacle even caught airline customer service teams off guard. How's this for a moment of raw frustration from usually AI-polite Delta Air Lines?
It turns out airlines had more to give. On Thursday, another 1,370 flight didn't get off the ground in the U.S. This time, American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines led the pack.
If you have flight plans this summer, I'm sure you want to know how to avoid a flight cancellation. That's a difficult question to answer since no one can predict the future. But it's not impossible. There are ways to avoid getting stuck at the airport — and methods of dealing with a flight cancellation.
But first, we need some context.
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How did we get here?
So how did we end up with the domestic airlines being woefully unprepared for an onslaught of summer travelers? We can trace the beginning of this nonsense to early 2020, when airlines accepted an $80 billion bailout from the government.
Although they couldn't lay off employees, they found a loophole. They could offer early retirements and other incentives for employees to leave — and they did. And so we ended up with understaffed airlines, which were far less capable of handling the same demands as they had in 2019.
But what if demand came back to 2019 levels? Apparently, airlines didn't think that far ahead.
And now here we are during the summer of 2022, with demand almost back at pre-pandemic levels. Already, several airlines have voluntarily cut back their schedules because they're afraid they can't operate all of their flights.
Delta suffered the highest number of cancellations. The airline called off more than 800 flights from Thursday to Monday.
But Delta shouldn't feel so bad. Memorial Day was its weekend to be in the spotlight. But there are 93 days this summer and plenty of opportunities for the other airlines to embarrass themselves.
How to avoid getting stuck at the airport
We had a terrific discussion about last weekend's cancellations on our members-only Friday Forum. (You can get access to the Friday Forum and all the other premium features on this newsletter for just $5 a month based on an annual subscription — a 40 percent discount. Here’s how to sign up now.)
Let's review some of the advice:
Fly early. Many airlines park their aircraft at the gate overnight. So if you get the first flight of the day out, it's far less likely to get canceled. There's no guarantee, of course, but still a valid strategy. Most veteran air travelers try to book the first flight out, even if it's at oh dark thirty. Better to wake up early and get there.
Travel during periods of low demand. Airline load factors plummet on major holidays like the Fourth of July or Labor Day. Why? Everyone wants to be with their family. But airlines still fly. It's kind of like traveling in the eye of the hurricane, where calm gives way to chaos.
Avoid weather disturbances. Weather is unpredictable — except when it isn't. In Central Florida, where I lived for 12 years, you could always count on a thunderstorm at around 2 p.m. in the summer. Flights to Orlando were predictably delayed. I always preferred an early morning flight to come home. I never had much luck flying in the evening.
Avoid summer altogether! Let's not forget the obvious advice. If you can hold off with your flight plans until after Labor Day, you're far less likely to have your flight canceled. The summer will be prime time for cancellations, so let's not forget the obvious advice. If you can hold off with your flight plans until after Labor Day, you're far less likely to have your flight canceled. Several commenters have mentioned that they're canceling or postponing their plans until things calm down.
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What if your flight gets canceled?
If you're reading this at the airport and it's too late, there are ways to handle an airline cancellation.
1. Know your rights. You probably already know this if you're a regular reader of this newsletter. You have rights. You can find them in the contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. The Department of Transportation also requires airlines have a customer service agreement, which outlines the airline's obligations to you. When a flight gets canceled, you can ask for a refund regardless of the reason. If it's for reasons within the airline's control, the airline will cover your basic expenses and overnight lodging. If it's weather or some other act of God, not so much.
2. Don't wait. If your airline cancels your flight, don't just sit there. Get in line at the ticket counter, click on the airline app, call the airline, send a text message — but whatever you do, don't wait. Time is not on your side. The next flight is starting to fill up fast. If it's an overnight delay, then hotels at the airport are getting booked. You don't want to be the person sleeping at the airport.
3. Get your tweets on. If you're not on social media, this is the summer to join. Airlines are paying much closer attention to what passengers are saying on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. A brief, polite note to your airline will probably put you in touch with a bot that can help (and, if necessary, connect you to a real person). Don't forget that I publish all the airline executives' names, numbers, and email addresses on my consumer advocacy site.
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I'm always here to help
You're going to be fine this summer. You're smart. (After all, you're subscribed to this newsletter.) But if you happen to have a dreaded afternoon flight into Orlando or get stuck overnight in Chicago, I'm only an email away. You can reach out to my consumer advocacy site, and my team and I will do our best to help you. Although we can't rebook your flight, but we can connect you with information that will allow you to get to your destination.
There's a takeaway from what is likely to be the summer of airline cancellations. The next time airlines come to taxpayers, hat in hand, asking for a bailout, we would be wise to remember what happened the last time we helped. These businesses let us down repeatedly, after 9/11, during the wave of early 2000s mergers, and now after the pandemic.
Maybe, just maybe, we should try electing representatives who know how to say "no" when an airline lobbyist comes calling.
How are you flying this summer?
What's your strategy for avoiding an airline cancellation? Are you flying early? Avoiding the big holidays? Or not flying at all? The comments are open.
About the art
Delta's social media shenanigans inspired artist Dustin Elliott this week. "I imagine Cary Grant as a tourist, being stalked by an enormous Twitter bird," he says. It's an absurdist homage to the Alfred Hitchcock movie North By Northwest.
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