It’s one of the most dreaded feelings a traveler ever has: stuck somewhere, not able to get to your destination.
You planned on a certain arrival time to get there, but 24 hours later you’re still sitting in an airport or in an overpriced nearby hotel, waiting for your flight to depart. One delay turns into 50 and planeloads of people can’t get out.
If you fly a lot, a flight delay by the airline is inevitable sooner or later. Schedules are packed, there’s little margin for error at busy airports, and in the case of some airports (like Mexico City), they’ve been over capacity for years but needed expansions take even more years to approve and build. In busy metro areas that serve as hubs, even a slight weather delay can throw off the schedule for a day or two.
There are some steps you can take to lessen your chances of getting delayed, however, plus you may be eligible for compensation if the reason is something besides weather.
Take an Early Flight
Even if you’re a morning person, catching an Uber at 4:00 a.m. to head to the airport is no fun. The earlier your flight though, the better chance you have of it actually taking off. The plane is already sitting there and the crew is probably starting their day with you. If something does go wrong, you’ve got a whole day of flight options ahead of you. The effects of a delay compound throughout the day.
Watch the News for Airline Strikes
In April of this year, Air France/KLM and Lufthansa went on strike the same week, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded. This was nothing new for European travelers. Lufthansa pilots have gone on strike 14 times since 2012. The Air France stalemate lasted through part of May, costing an airline already in trouble an estimated half a billion euros.
RyanAir workers went on strike during the busy July summer travel season this year, stranding more than 55,000 passengers in a single day, then did it again in August. Its rival easyJet also experienced a strike this year, as did pilots in certain countries for other European airlines. Some air traffic controllers went on strike as well.
In was a relatively quiet year for labor unrest in the Americas, but there were a couple 24-hour groundings in Argentina and lots of threats from workers at Frontier and Allegiant in the USA.
Know Your Other Options at the First Sign of Trouble
If you absolutely need to be somewhere at a certain time—like for a wedding—then pad your schedule by coming in a few days earlier or buy a refundable ticket. If you can’t do either of those, you’ll be at the mercy of the overwhelmed airline employees who are trying to reschedule everyone. Have the right phone numbers on hand, have your phone charged up, and try other methods, like Twitter. I once got a cancelled flight rescheduled all by Twitter by appealing to @DeltaAssist from a bus station seat in Mexico.
It’s good to have a general flight search app on your phone, like Kayak or Skyscanner, so you can see your options if delays start building up. You may need to look for other answers too, like a rental car, Amtrak, or Megabus. You’ll also probably rest easier if you have some hotel points banked up for emergencies like this. When I got stranded in Houston once, I got into a nearby airport hotel for 10,000 Hilton points I had sitting in my account.
Avoid Airports With Frequent Flight Delays and Cancellations
Overall in the USA, 1.5% of all flights are cancelled. The New York City area is notorious for flight delays, partly because there are three major airports in close proximity, plus Philadelphia (an American Airlines hub) not far to the south. LaGuardia is the worst in the nation, cancelling 3.23% of all flights last year. Newark was number 4, JFK number 5. In other words, 3 of the top-5 worst are in that one city, plus #2 Houston’s data was impacted by a major hurricane.
Others are not so obvious, however. Ft. Lauderdale (home of Spirit Airlines) came in number 3, with 2.7% cancelled. Boston was number 6, sunny Orlando was number 8.
In the busy summer travel season, New York is again the worst place to fly through. The worst on-time summer records in the summer months have Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK all in the top 5. The other two are Boston and San Francisco.
Coming in well below average were Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, and Las Vegas. Try to fly through one of those if you have a connection. See a full list here.
Are You Eligible for Compensation?
In general, there are two types of flight delays and cancellations: ones that are nature’s fault and ones that are the airlines’ fault. If weather causes the delay or cancellation, you’re probably on your own. If the delay is mechanical, a labor dispute, or a pilot stuck in traffic, you may have compensation coming.
If the thought of being on hold for hours with Ryanair and filling out pages of forms makes your head hurt, however, someone will be glad to take that off your hands for a fee. A company like AirHelp can get compensation for delayed flights, holding part of it as a commission. They have already secured more than 160 million euros from the airlines for their customers.
Even with them taking 25%, this can be a significant sum. Under EU regulation EC 261, you could be owed up to €600.
Unfortunately, the airlines have spent tens of millions on lobbying pliable congress members in the USA and the current anti-regulation administration has given them even more leeway. You do have some rights, but not nearly as many as you have in Europe. See these exhaustive government website for details.