The Northeast Coast is finally starting to dig out from one of the biggest winter storms the US has seen in a decade. The storm was a perfect mix of weather at the right time, a low pressure system funneled with fresh wet air made allowed for more than 2 feet of snow to fall from the Virginia’s all the way to New York City – covering most U.S. Airline European gateway hubs. The storm had originally been expected to only bring 6-8 inches of snow to most areas, but as the storm came closer, forecasts began to increase. The storm dropped large amounts of snow in localized areas, cities like New York got hit with over 2 feet of snow in some areas, however areas just 100 miles to the North received little to any snow.
Airlines were proactive in canceling flights before the storm hit. By doing this they are able to get their aircraft from getting stuck in the winter weather. This also allows them to bring the aircraft into cities quicker once airports reopen. This storm caused over 10,000 cancellations by Saturday night. However, as airlines began trying to resume normal operations they found that many crews and aircrafts were out of place resulting in more cancellations – more are still expected for Monday as airlines continue to try to restart their operations and get back to normal. Hub airports become a mess as more and more passengers try to get to their destinations creating a (pardon the pun) huge snowball effect.
Airlines usually try to get their mainline operations up and running first and then focus on smaller regional airline operations as mainline aircraft hold more passengers allowing them to move more people. Some are estimating that this could result in a total of 15,000-20,000 flights cancelled in response to Jonas.
What most people don’t know is that a delay or cancellation has a effect throughout the airline’s network. An aircraft being cancelled in New York that was bound for Atlanta might mean that there is no aircraft to operate the flight from Atlanta to Dallas, then onto Las Vegas and then onto San Francisco and finally ending it’s day in Seattle! Sadly, crew schedulers have the worst job after storms like these because they have to rebuild and create new schedules for flight attendants and pilots to fly. Thousands of people all scattered in different places that they shouldn’t be, needing to get to different places just to get things back to normal. So, while you’re sitting in the terminal waiting on a delayed flight remember someone sitting staring at a screen for hours made that flight happen, without them that flight might not have even operated!
What should I know if the airline has delayed or cancelled my flight?
If your flight gets delayed or canceled due to weather the airline is not liable or required to provide you with a hotel for the night – however most international airlines based in Europe and Asia will offer you a hotel – but only if one is available. In situations like this just finding a hotel with vacant rooms can be hard because so many flights have cancelled. Airlines can work with you and give you access to reduce rate and discounted rates for area hotels, ask and they’ll be happy to connect you to a company they work with to find a discounted rate hotel room.
If your flight is cancelled, they should rebook you on the next available flight, in some cases that may not be for days as everyone going the same place has already been rebooked on the next flight as well. There is hope though! Often people can’t even get to the airport, so you can ask to “Stand By” for the next flight to your destination. When the flight is done boarding, if there are any seats left by people who don’t show up, they’ll be given to standby passengers in a preset order.
If you can’t get a flight to where you are going, often times the airlines can bend the rules and reroute you in ways they wouldn’t normally. I always advise people to ask for a backward reroute. If you’re flying from New York to Atlanta, ask to be routed to Florida and then back to Atlanta or maybe via Boston or Buffalo. A few years ago a passenger who was trying to get to Atlanta from New York, flew to Europe, got off the plane, cleared customs checked in for the next flight on the same airline and flew back to Atlanta. In the end, he paid nothing for a hotel, and had free drinks and food – and got there a day before his next available non-stop flight would have got him there – but that’s an extreme way to work the system. There are also options of going to nearby cities, in weather cases like these, airlines will often let you fly into a different airport if it’s without a 100 miles or so of your original destination. Other airlines will let you go to a completely different destination. So consider flying to a nearby place and renting a car.
Often airlines won’t tell you, but if you’re delayed or cancelled for an extended period, you can ask for Meal vouchers, yes free food. The airline will print out a ticket on their boarding card paper with a predetermined amount. In most cases it’s $7 for breakfast, $10 lunch and $15 for dinner. These vouchers can be used at almost any eatery in that terminal. Just remember to ask, as often the gate agents are trying to move the line as quickly as possible – they may forget to offer them as it takes additional time.
Airlines are required to get you to your destination as quick as reasonably able. Years ago before deregulation of the airlines in 1978, the FAA had a rule known as Rule 240. That rule mandated that an airline with a delayed or canceled flight could transfer passengers to another airline if it could get you there faster. Airlines would normally print out your ticket and right Rule 240, their initials and employee number, and hand the ticket over to another airline which would then take you to your destination (in Europe this is know as EU Regulation 261 or 261/2014). Today in the world of E-Tickets it is not as common to see this but it’s general practice to move customers over if it means getting them to where they need to go. So if you are flying on one airline to another airline’s hub, consider asking if another airline can get you there. Example, United is the largest airline flying from Newark (EWR), so if you’re flight from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) is cancelled you could ask American Airlines to rebook you on United – if they have seats available.
If you’re going to be in the airport for more than a day, consider checking out the airlines premium lounges. Most often have a “day rate” of about $50 – here you’ll get free “light” food and free alcoholic beverages. If you’re in a large international airport like JFK or O’hare where there is a focus on international travel some of the premium lounges have showers which can be a huge help if you’re going to be stranded for more than a day. More importantly in this day and age is access to to charge up all of your devices. You’ll also find free Wi-Fi and a much quieter atmosphere where you can relax and snooze till your flight is finally ready to board.
In the end remember that those gate and ticket counter agents are human, you’re only one passenger of thousands they have to deal with – each passenger going through exactly what you’re going through – and it’s that agents job to find you a way home. Bring them a candy bar or ask if they want something from the eatery you’re planning on visiting, it will totally change their day. It just might change your day too. Many years ago in Charlotte once after a long snow storm, I asked the gate agent if she wanted anything as I was heading to the donut shop in the terminal – “a hot fresh glazed from Krispy Kreme?” she declined but I got her one anyway, when she went to take my ticket I set down the donut. She said, “No way! Thank you, I haven’t gotten a break today!” She then printed out my ticket again and said, “I’m so sorry – I had to change your seat – hope you enjoy your flight.” I walked on the jetway to board the flight, I looked down to see my new seat, it read: Seat 2A – FIRST CLASS.
While I never expected it, it made me realize I had changed someones day, that’s the best feeling especially after two days of trying to get home after a bad storm.