Flight canceled or delayed? Here's how to rebook or get a refund

You've made it to your gate. You finally weathered through the labyrinthine airport grounds and the masses of fellow travelers who, like you, are either starting or ending a long-distance adventure.

That's when you get the update. Your flight was canceled or you're facing a lengthy delay.

While not every air travel experience is a horror story, travelers must be prepared if a mass disruption — such as the Federal Aviation Administration computer glitch that disrupted airline traffic nationwide this week or the Southwest Airlines meltdown over the December holidays — delays or cancels their flight.

Travelers must especially be cautious during peak travel periods when airports deal with heavier than normal passenger traffic and may be more prone to unpredictable weather.

It may feel like the end of the world when your flight is delayed or canceled, but fear not. These steps will help you survive the ordeal.

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Download your airline’s app before you travel

Enable notifications so you'll get real-time updates of your flight status.

If your flight is canceled, you can use the app to quickly search for flight options and rebook yourself. It beats hustling to an airline customer service desk and waiting in a long line with your fellow passengers or calling your airline's 800 number and waiting endlessly to get a customer service representative on the line.

Cars line up to drop off people for departures as travelers begin to make their way to Thanksgiving destinations at Phoenix Sky Harbor on Nov. 22, 2022.
Cars line up to drop off people for departures as travelers begin to make their way to Thanksgiving destinations at Phoenix Sky Harbor on Nov. 22, 2022.

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Monitor FlightAware for delays and cancellations nationwide

While checking your airline for the status of your flight is recommended, another helpful resource for flight information is the website FlightAware. It allows people to view current and upcoming arriving and departing flights, plus the number of canceled flights in the last 24 hours.

FlightAware can be a useful resource for fliers because it tracks flights' general on-time performance and assesses how weather and other factors affect travel in real time.

Check out this new airline customer service dashboard

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently debuted an airline customer service dashboard describing what airlines offer passengers when flights are disrupted, as well as links to the airlines' customer service policies.

The dashboard lists 10 major carriers, including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines — which serve more than 70% of the flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — and shows what compensation or other mitigations each airline provides in the event of delays or cancellations.

American Airlines ticket agents work with crowded lines as travelers begin to make their way to Thanksgiving destinations at Phoenix Sky Harbor on Nov. 22, 2022.
American Airlines ticket agents work with crowded lines as travelers begin to make their way to Thanksgiving destinations at Phoenix Sky Harbor on Nov. 22, 2022.

For example, all the airlines listed have committed to rebooking passengers at no additional cost, and all except Frontier Airlines committed to providing complimentary hotel accommodations for passengers affected by overnight cancellations.

You can access the dashboard at https://www.transportation.gov.

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You are entitled to a refund for a cancellation or significant delay

An airline may encourage you to rebook or accept a credit for future travel, but know that you are entitled to request a refund if you want one.

Federal law requires airlines to offer refunds upon a customer's request under certain conditions. The Department of Transportation states that air travelers are entitled to refunds if they choose not to travel after a flight cancellation, schedule change or significant delay.

Be aware that you are only entitled to a refund if the airline cancels your flight. If you change your mind about traveling and cancel your flight on your own, you are not entitled to a refund.

And what constitutes a "significant delay" is a significant gray area.

According to the DOT's website, "DOT has not specifically defined 'significant delay.' Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on a lot of factors — such as the length of the delay, the length of the flight and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund on a case by case basis."

Also, if a flyer is involuntarily downgraded — for example, they purchased a first-class ticket but are moved to economy — they're owed the difference in fare.

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Know what benefits your credit card or travel insurance provide

Some credit cards and travel insurance policies offer protections or benefits in the event of a flight delay or cancellation.

Check your travel insurance to see if your policy includes trip delay or trip interruption coverage, which reimburses you for expenses related to travel delays. These may include a hotel in the event of an overnight delay, or other costs associated with disruptions like transportation.

Contact your credit card issuer to see if the card you used to buy your airfare offers protections when cancellations occur. Be aware that whether or not you're protected varies by the credit card provider, and the amount you can claim may be limited.

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What if American Airlines cancels my flight?

American Airlines will rebook passengers on its next flight with available seats at no additional cost when a flight is canceled, significantly delayed or if a delay causes someone to miss a connecting flight. If no American Airlines flights are available until the next day, staff will rebook passengers on one of their partner airlines at no additional cost.

If the airline causes a cancellation or diversion that requires passengers to stay overnight, passengers will receive:

  • A voucher for an approved hotel or reimbursement for reasonable hotel costs if delayed overnight.

  • Transportation to a hotel and back to the airport by hotel shuttle or third-party transportation service, or a transportation voucher. If no transport service is available or the airline can't provide a voucher, it will reimburse for reasonable transportation costs.

  • Meal vouchers if the delay is three or more hours after a scheduled departure.

American Airlines will not provide hotels, meals or transportation for weather-related delays.

American Airlines notifies flyers about delays, cancellations and diversions within 30 minutes of becoming aware a flight is impacted. Airline staff will contact passengers at the phone numbers provided in the reservation and offer phone, email and text updates for customers who sign up for flight status notifications on the airline's website. If a passenger booked through a travel agency, airline staff will contact the agency to get their phone number.

For more information or to sign up for flight updates, visit aa.com.

What if Southwest Airlines cancels my flight?

When a delay or cancellation happens, Southwest will rebook fliers on the next available flight at no additional cost.

If Southwest cancels a flight, it may call or email passengers with information about a new itinerary. If that happens, passengers' new reservations are confirmed and they don't need to do anything else unless the new itinerary does not work for their travel plans.

Southwest allows flyers affected by cancellations to change their flight dates and/or times by up to 14 days from their original travel date at no additional cost.

If a delay or cancellation is within the airline's control and causes a wait of three or more hours, Southwest will provide a meal voucher upon request for participating airport restaurants or offer reimbursement for reasonably priced meals. Southwest will offer hotel vouchers or reimbursements if cancellations require an overnight stay and the flyer doesn't live locally.

Like American Airlines, Southwest does not offer hotels, meals or transportation for weather-related cancellations, but will seek to get a discounted rate for hotels near the airport for affected flyers.

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How to file a complaint with the DOT

If you've tried resolving your issues with your airline and feel like you've exhausted your options, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Most customer complaints pertain to delays and cancellations, according to the DOT's monthly air travel consumer reports. But the department can also help with issues such as lost or mishandled baggage, customer service issues, and disability and discrimination concerns.

You can file a complaint at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer.

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Reach the reporter at Michael.Salerno@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salerno_phx.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Flight canceled or delayed? How to rebook or get a refund