Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Jan. 10, 2023. It has been updated with data related to the 2023 holiday season.
As millions of Americans prepare to fly to faraway Thanksgiving festivities, major storm systems are threatening to mess with travel plans.
Storm systems in the East and Midwest are expected to cause thunderstorms and wintery conditions, disrupting hundreds, if not thousands, of flights, as the Deseret News previously reported.
The situation calls to mind travel drama from last winter, when thousands of Americans were stranded in airports during the holiday season. For example, Southwest Airlines canceled at least 16,000 flights between Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, according to Reuters.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan addressed the cancellations on “Good Morning America.” He said the airline already had plans to invest in tools and technology before now and that they are offering refunds.
“We’ll be looking at and taking care of things like rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, booking customers on other airlines sold,” he said. This offer applied to passengers whose flights were canceled or significantly delayed between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.
On the airline’s website, there was a Southwest Reimbursement Request form to submit receipts. But in a call with reporters, Chief Commercial Officer Ryan Green said repayments will take several weeks, according to Reuters.
Although such reimbursement plans are important, they often feel like too little, too late. Stranded travelers never get back lost time with family and friends.
What do airlines owe you when your flight is canceled?
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s website says a consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change or delay and the customer chooses not to travel. There is no definition of “significant” and the DOT will decide whether a refund is warranted on a case-by-case basis. If an airline refuses a refund, the DOT encourages consumers to file a complaint against the airline or ticket agent.
Note that federal law entitles passengers to a cash refund, not only a voucher, in cases of canceled or significantly delayed flights.
JetBlue’s website says customers will receive a credit of between $50 and $200 depending on how long the flight is delayed. If JetBlue cancels a flight, customers can receive a full refund if the flight cannot be rebooked within two hours or be rebooked on the next available JetBlue flight with no fee.
No federal laws exist requiring airlines to provide meal or hotel vouchers when a flight is canceled or delayed. If a flight is delayed or canceled for more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Delta and United will provide a hotel voucher “if accommodations are available” or airline credit for the amount of a contracted hotel stay.
American’s website says it will cover a night’s hotel stay if a flight doesn’t board by 11:59 p.m. on the scheduled arrival day. American notes it doesn’t guarantee reimbursement if a passenger books a hotel without written authorization from the airline.
JetBlue’s website says if a delay caused by a “controllable irregularity” lasts for six or more hours, the passenger can request meal and hotel vouchers.
Each airline has its own Contract of Carriage, which outlines rules regarding cancellations, delays, refunds and reimbursements. All of them note that the guarantees only apply when the disruption is because of something within the airline’s control.
There are ways to improve the odds when it comes to making sure any booked flight stays on track. NerdWallet analyzed data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics between January and April 2022 to see which airlines have the most on-time flights.
Delta and Hawaiian Airlines tied for first with 82% of all flights arriving on time. SkyWest, American, United and Alaska were between 79% and 77% on time. Southwest came in at 74%, Spirit at 68%, Frontier with 63% and JetBlue brought up the tail end with only 60% of its flights on time. JetBlue also had the highest percentage of canceled flights at 7%.
NerdWallet also found that air carrier problems like maintenance and delays in baggage, fueling and cleaning were the main reason for late arrivals. But the second most common reason is the domino effect. A flight is late from its previous destination, which pushes the next flight to be late as well. Consider booking the earliest flight of the day to avoid that issue.
Finally, make sure to opt in to get status updates on any flight. A text from the airline or an app notification will likely be the first alert you’ll see if there’s a change.
Airlines generally recommend getting to the airport in time for your flight’s original departure time even when a delay has been announced. Delays can be shortened unexpectedly.
Travel disruptions are frustrating, but know your rights and get compensated for at least some of the hassle.