What You Can Expect from Airlines When Your Flight Plans Change
Ideally speaking, airplanes are meant to take passengers from point A to point B quickly, safely, and efficiently. Many travelers prefer flights to day-long train rides, or cramming the entire family into an SUV, and hoping for decent motels along the way. Flights are supposed to offer speed and convenience, which is exactly why many travelers choose to pay what can sometimes be very expensive airfare. Of course, this plan only clicks into place if the airline does what it's supposed to do.
But what if it doesn't?
There are so many things that can go wrong, and when they do, it is often the passengers who feel the impact of these issues. Overbooked flights, heavy air traffic, mechanical issues, weather events and even computer malfunctions can all conspire to keep you on the ground, just when your trip was supposed to be well underway. When your flight plans change, for whatever reason, it's called an amendment (more information on that can be found right here.) Sometimes these amendments are the faults of the airline, sometimes they are the fault of the passenger, and sometimes there's no way to assign fault at all.
However it happened, the bottom line is that many travelers don't know what they can do when they experience flight delays or cancellations. To help straighten that out, here is an explanation of what you can expect from your airline when your flight plans change.
Sometimes, flight delays can be so lengthy, or cancellations can be so poorly timed that your best bet might be to just scrub your flight plans and start over from scratch.
Typically, the airline will do its best to get you on the next available flight, but there are dozens of reasons why that solution might not work for you. For instance, a family of five traveling with young children will obviously want to be seated together. When an airline is scrambling to find new flights for all of you, you may wind up with individual seats scattered throughout the plane (definitely not ideal for a three-year-old) or your family may have to split into two smaller groups, and take two completely different flights.
Of course, even solo travelers can run into this conundrum as well. A business traveler looking at a significant delay might miss the entire meeting or conference that they were traveling to in the first place, meaning there's no longer a reason to make the trip at this time. A later flight to a rescheduled meeting would be much more helpful.
In each of these scenarios, even though airlines default to trying to help you reach your destination as quickly as possible, it would actually be much more ideal if you had the opportunity to completely reschedule this trip. Airlines can help you accomplish this by offering you credit in the form of flight vouchers.
Flight vouchers are sort of like rain checks that can be used within a set amount of time to schedule a new trip. Even if there is a significant price difference, the airline must honor these vouchers, assuming your trip meets all of the requirements. As long as you are traveling from the same departure city to the same destination city, and as long as you are requesting seats in the same class as your original flight, the voucher can be used to secure you a new ticket at a more convenient time.
There is a little bit of confusion when it comes to airline refunds. Passengers who booked directly through the airline (in other words, not through a third-party website that lists off various airfares) are given the choice of purchasing a refundable or nonrefundable ticket. Refundable tickets are often significantly more expensive, but they do guarantee a full refund of the ticket price, for any reason.
That "for any reason" is key. Refundable tickets entitle you to a full refund even if you overslept, woke up with the flu, or decided a few hours before your flight that you didn't want to travel after all. In each of those cases, the cancellation is coming from the traveler, not the airline. Typically, airline is not responsible for any sort of compensation if you are the one who cancels or misses the flight – unless you paid for a refundable ticket.
In all other cases where the flight delay or cancellation is the result of the airline error, or an act of nature, passengers are well within their rights to request a full refund.
People living in the Midwest, or in the northeastern US are no stranger to huge winter storms. A blizzard that completely shuts down the airport for two days is going to cause a travel nightmare for everyone involved. Sometimes, the best option for you is to simply request a refund of the money you paid, rather than jump into the rescheduling scramble.
Whereas vouchers offer you airline credit, a refund is just that: you get your money back. Some travelers prefer to just cash out and fly some other time.
Food and Drink Coupons
Assuming you want to be a trooper and hunker down in the airport for the duration of your flight delay, your airline may offer you coupons which can be used for food, drinks, and other essentials (a toothbrush, baby diapers, etc.) which you can purchase in the airport.
Many people are traveling on a strict budget, and don't like finding out that they need to purchase meals and drinks (at the airport prices no less) while they wait through a lengthy delay. Of course, even travelers with loads of disposable income did not necessarily intend to spend any of it on extra meals while they wait around.
If your delay is longer than two hours, you can request vouchers or coupons which can be used airport restaurants and snack bars. Each airline will have their own set of parameters for when they hand these out, but it is always a good idea to ask.
Sometimes, airlines will offer delayed or stranded passengers discounts on future flights. Customers who have been massively inconvenienced might feel uninspired to book with the same airline ever again, so these special coupons tend to appear, especially around holidays or other extremely chaotic times in the airport.
Even if your airline was able to successfully reschedule you, and even if your delay did not force you to sleep on an airport bench or miss an important meeting, you can still ask about discounts on future flights as compensation. There's hardly ever a time when flight delays or cancellations could be described as "convenient," and many airlines are eager to smooth over customer relations.
Here's one thing to always keep in mind: you sought out, booked, and paid for a flight that was supposed to depart and arrive at certain times. If that did not happen, then your airline may owe you some form of compensation, and you are allowed to ask for this. In fact, Europe has even gone so far as to legislate your rights as a passenger on flights to, from, or within Europe.
As your last line of defense, there are passenger advocacy groups who can help you get the compensation you deserve when airlines are being uncooperative. To find out more, or to file a claim against an airline, click here.