How do you handle sudden flight cancellations?
A few years back when I regularly flew US Airways ( RIP US Airways 😭 ), a strange situation occurred. How strange? A truck hit my airplane while we sat on the tarmac. I wanted to get to a work-related event in Las Vegas and needed to think quick to get an alternate plan.
This situation requires a different set of strategies than flight cancellations that happen a little bit ahead of time. There is going to be a rush for the gate agents, long lines, and (as in the case of regular flight cancellations) lots of people suddenly calling the customer service line.
I’m starting with the story of my actual flight cancellation. If you just want to get to the advice on flight cancellations, feel free to scroll past.
Setting the scene
I sat in my seat, sipping a pre-departure beverage. Boarding had just completed and the flight attendants were in the process of closing the overhead bins. I booked a late night flight, so I settled in cozy in my seat–when BAM! The entire plane shook violently and lifted on the left side.
Our plane was just hit! The people on the other side of the plane started exclaiming, “A TRUCK JUST HIT THE ENGINE!” I looked up and down the aisle and everyone was okay. The overhead bins were already shut. Everyone fastened their seatbelts. And the flight attendants were all standing in places where they could brace themselves.
Everyone was 100% okay.
What happened then?
My first reaction was to get up and get my bag out of the overhead compartment and sit back down. It was an evening flight and I was pretty sure they could not repair what just happened. Even if they could, since it was after 9 pm, I doubted they could fix the plane in time to fit DCA’s take-off window. DCA’s runways close for the night. Sure enough, after sitting for about 20 minutes, they announced the flight cancellation and everyone needed to rebook.
We were on a non-stop cross-country flight to Las Vegas on an Airbus 320. The flight was full at 150 people and US Airways only had one direct flight to Vegas per day.
They deplaned the first-class passengers to rebook them immediately.
What do you do in this situation, especially if you are stuck on the plane while first-class re-books? Luckily, there are ways of re-booking yourself while still on the plane–but I will get to that.
1. Decide Ahead of Time What You Want
If your first-class seated, non-stop flight to Vegas got canceled you probably want a new non-stop flight to Vegas, in first class, as soon as possible. You are probably going to get one of those items. Decide what it is before talking to the agent so she can best assist you. In my case, I was most interested in getting to Las Vegas as soon as possible for my event.
I told the gate agent: I would like us both to be in Vegas as soon as possible. I value speed more than a direct flight and you can send us separately if you need to. She was able to snag us the last seats on two different hub routes. While we ended up taking a crazy path, we got to the conference on time.
2. If You Have a Lounge Membership, Head There
The club membership desks can help you and won’t have the crowds your gate has. And, to put it bluntly, they tend to value customer experience more than those at the gate. I couldn’t do this in my case because the US Airways Club closed early on Saturday Nights, but I wish it were an option.
3. Call the Airlines While You Are Waiting (Especially if you have elite status)
Some of the people on the plane called up US Airways and got on flights before most of the first class passengers re-booked. The customer representatives on the phone have more power than those at the gate.
The job of the Gate Agents at this point is to get everyone re-booked as soon as possible. They probably won’t look at options on other airlines or other ways of getting you what you need.
The Phone Customer Service Agents, on the other hand, do not have an ever growing queue of people in front of them. They can take the time to listen and figure out a solution for your situation.
It is also faster to deal with re-booking on the phone. If there’s a grumpy person in front of you, the Gate Agent has to deal with them until they go away. On the phone, you connect to the next available person when they open up. And the longer you wait, the more flights go to other people trying to rebook.
I made this mistake. I was second in line for re-booking the first class passengers. So, it did not even occur to me to call. But the person in front of me had status and wanted the entire staff at the airport to know and wanted an invisible plane to appear and take him to his location. By the time he finished berating the gate agent, all the flight options she offered disappeared (most likely to the passengers on the plane who called up US Airways directly!)
After the agent rebooked me, my itinerary contained 12 hours of travel (in the middle seat the whole time). I am grateful the gate agent was able to quickly get me what I most needed once I made it to the front.
When I called the Platinum line right after to see what I could do in regards to the middle seat, I got through immediately. She booked me an aisle seat on my flights (and put me on standby for first for all three legs–one cleared) and took the time to work through the system to get this done.
4. Use Twitter to Reach Out to the Airlines
Sometimes your best option might be social media. I’ve resolved flight issues before while I was still in the air by using Twitter. On the ground, you have more options, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out to them to find out if they are able to help you.
This is important though–ask them to let you know if they start working on your ticket first. I had an instance where American Airlines never responded to a request for help through Twitter, but when I finally got to a gate agent found out that they were already in my record fixing things.
5. Be Familiar With the Carrier Contracts for Your Airline and Use it as a Weapon
If your flight cancellation strands you, know what you can ask for–food? Hotel? But also hold off on any non-immediate compensation needs until you can send an email later. The Gate Agent cannot compensate you for your anguish or a lost hotel room. Submit that to the airline directly through email. This creates a paper trail as you work through your claim.
Unfortunately for me, US Airways Carrier Contract specifically listed their compensation for canceled flights as suggested compensation only. In this case, they would cover a hotel room if you do not live in the area. I didn’t expect much since DC is my home area.
I lost cab fare and one night of a hotel from this. They ended up giving me a $130 credit towards a future flight.
6. CALL YOUR HOTEL
I put this in all-caps because it is very important. If you do not check-in, there’s a chance your hotel can cancel your reservation. The hotel would mark you as a no-show and charge you a penalty. Once the hotel knows what is going on, they know when to expect you. However, be familiar with the hotel’s cancellation/no-show policy. My hotel’s cancellation policy charged 100% for the first night, so I did not save any money. But at least they knew I was coming and did not give my room away. It would have added another layer of “ugh” to this situation.
7. Breathe and Remember This Stuff Happens
Weather, emergencies and, er, trucks happen. Don’t let this ruin your trip. Take a cancellation in a random city as an opportunity to see a new place. I look up places near airports where I can get stuck so I know a fun thing I can jump right into. (If I am ever stranded in Phoenix, I will eat like a king).
Also remember that the Gate Agents didn’t cause whatever happened, and even more so–the flight attendants on your flight aren’t getting paid. Airlines pay flight attendants on hours flown, not hours on board. Please don’t take your annoyance for the weather, the airlines, or that truck driver that hit you out on the staff.
8. Prepare for Next Time (and future flight cancellations)
The man sitting behind me was extremely distraught. He was taking a non-refundable helicopter ride early the next morning. He had paid over $1,000 for this. I really felt bad for him. It seemed like something he really wanted to do and had saved up for.
But in the future, for any activities you are really looking forward to, you spent a lot of money on, and are non-refundable, you will want to pad your travel time.
In summary, try to figure out what a reasonable request would be and aim your expectations slightly lower–that’s probably what you’d end up getting. Don’t ask for everything you want. Determine what your main priorities are and ask for those.