NEW YORK The Northeast blizzard of late December was a reminder that bad weather can disrupt air travel even if the sky above your local airport is a clear blue.
Airlines these days are more inclined to cancel flights at the hint of a major storm than to try and outgun Mother Nature. They canceled more than 10,000 flights over several days because of the blizzard, in some cases hours before snow started falling. Thats because of a government rule that imposes huge fines for long tarmac waits, along with lessons learned from previous massive storms.
Much attention was paid to travelers stranded in the major New York-area airports while plows struggled to clear runways. But there also were plenty of inconvenienced travelers in cities like Dallas and San Francisco, far away from the snowflakes.
There are several steps passengers can take to deal with this new reality:
b If your flight is canceled because of bad weather, dont go to the airport. That is, unless you have a fondness for cots or uncomfortable airport floors or seats. During the blizzard, many people were stuck for days as the airports and airlines remained paralyzed by the snow.
b To avoid getting stranded, check your flight status early the day youre flying and again right before you drive to the airport. That way, you can call the airlines customer service line from the comfort of your home if theres a problem.
b If youre already at the airport when your flight is canceled, put your legs and fingers to work. Walk over to customer service. While there, dial the customer service number. Odds are youll get help over the phone before reaching the front of the line.
b Come prepared: Jot down the number and basic details of flights that leave around the time yours was set to depart. This will make things easier when youre dealing with an airline agent for rebooking.
b Want a more modern way to get the airlines attention? Try Twitter. Every major airline is on the social media site. Its worth buzzing them to try and get faster aid. Some including JetBlue and Delta responded directly to frustrated passengers stuck during the blizzard.
The basic rules
The airlines usually waive change fees if your flight is delayed or canceled because of weather. But their generosity goes only so far. Many waive the fee only once. Be certain you want to change your itinerary before you lock it in. Otherwise, youll be out $150.
If you cancel your booking altogether, the airline might offer you a voucher for a future flight. But remember, you can ask for cash instead.
While these rules can save you headaches after the worst has happened, its important to be prepared from the start.
b Before you fly, sign up for alerts with your travel booking website, if you used one. The alerts from sites like Orbitz or Expedia can be sent to your cell phone or e-mail inbox. Youll be informed about any changes to your flight before youre stuck.
b Print out the airlines contract of carriage. The document is available on every airlines website. It details what youre entitled to if something goes wrong, like refunds or vouchers for hotels and food. But be warned: the airlines arent as flexible when a delay is caused by weather.
The root of the problem
It took several days, in some cases, to re-book passengers stranded because of the blizzard. And such delays are becoming more common.
Why? Two reasons.
First, delays or cancellations ripple throughout airline networks because they slow or stop both people and planes. Say, for example, youve booked a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but its canceled because it was set to be flown by a plane stuck in Phoenix. When a delay or cancellation happens, every flight thats assigned to that plane could be affected.
And while the plane may be ready to fly, the pilots or flight attendants may not. Flight crews are on duty for a limited number of hours. If their time runs out, a flight could be grounded until the next day.
Second, theres airline economics. In an effort to keep costs low, airlines are operating fewer flights and flying smaller planes on routes with less demand. Thats leaving travelers with fewer options to rebook if something goes wrong.
Some airlines added extra flights to clear stranded passengers faster after the snow was cleared. But much like keeping an extra car in your garage in case the family sedan breaks down, keeping extra planes for snow emergencies just doesnt make sense.