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You make it to the airport on time, get through the security line with the minimum of groping, get to the monitors and there it is. “FLIGHT DELAYED” appears in big bold highlighted letters next to your flight. After you have double checked and triple checked the board, what do you do now?
What Causes Delays
If you fought through the weather to get to the airport it will come as little surprise when your flight is delayed by the elements, but as I write this I am sitting at an airport with nothing but an overcast sky so the weather delay caught me by surprise. You can be delayed because your plane is coming in late because of weather delays or because the weather at your destination or along your route is bad.
Some airports get more weather delays than others. If you have a choice in the winter take a direct flight because every airport you add to your itinerary is one more chance for weather delays. Sometime this winter, expect to see Denver closed by snow for a day or two. It happens every year. Chicago is another airport to avoid in the winter if you can. (He says with plans to fly through Chicago O’Hare next week).
If one of the engines on your plane does not work, that plane won’t go anywhere until it is fixed or replaced with another plane. But what might surprise you is that mechanical difficulties come in all kinds. Once in Boston, I watched as the flight attendants struggled to close an overhead bin that would not latch. With each successive slam, we approached the inevitable trip back to the gate. The problem was fixed quickly with some duct tape by a mechanic but not before delaying us at least half an hour.
Your plane cannot take off without a pilot or two. Sometimes your airplane is there, the weather is clear but your pilot has gotten lost, sick, or stuck on his way to work. Sometimes flight crews fly from their home city to commute into work. They are as subject to delays as you are.
Until 2010, most of us would not have expected volcanoes to have an impact on air travel to the extent they have this year. The eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland taught us differently. As we have learned, when volcanic ash is ingested by jet engines they have a tendency to stop functioning. This propensity grounded flights in Europe for weeks. Like the weather, this sort of event is beyond the airline’s control. Maybe people found that the only option was traveling far enough on ground transportation to exit the area of air space covered by the ash cloud.
What do you do now?
You might be waiting for a while. Unless you can fix the plane, fly the plane or change the weather this problem is out of your hands. Make yourself comfortable. This is one of the reasons you should fly with a good book, a kindle, a smartphone loaded with podcasts, or a great love for people watching.
Note that your gate agent is also not able to fix the plane nor create one out of thin air. I remember being told once that our flight was delayed because air traffic coming out of the east coast was being snarled by a hurricane. The gate agent thanked me for taking the news calmly. People had been yelling at the gate agent as if she had power over hurricanes. I am going to go out on a limb and say that if she had such powers then this might not have been the career path she would have chosen.
What happens if my flight is delayed and I miss my connecting flight?
I have had the experience when my plane was about to pull away from the gate in Boston and I saw the first flash of lightning and knew immediately that I was likely sleeping on at the airport in Phoenix. There was no way that my flight was going to be taking off in a thunderstorm and I had a very tight connection in Phoenix on my way home to California. This was not going to work.
One of the reasons you remained calm and pleasant above is that if you are still at the gate you may be lining up to talk to the gate agent about the possibility of rerouting you. You can also call your travel agent if you booked through a travel agent, your corporate travel desk if it is a business trip… and you have a corporate travel desk, of the airline reservation number. Your ticket will have the phone number to call. If the delay is caused by something high like a hurricane, expect there to be quite a delay as there will be thousands and thousands of people calling just as you are.
If you are stuck in an airport because the plane had mechanical problems or some other cause that is within the airline’s control then you may get a voucher for a hotel or meals. If your problem is beyond the control of the airline like weather you likely will not get compensation, but it will depend upon the local laws (Europe is more generous to travelers than the U.S.) and the Contract of Carriage that governs your ticket (see below).
Know Your Rights – Contracts of Carriage
What compensation, if any, you may be eligible for a canceled flight will be governed by both the new passenger rights law as well as your contract with the airline which is known as the contract of carriage.
You may want to contact your hotel and tell them you will be arriving later. Enduring a flight delay only to arrive at the hotel and find they gave away your room is not how you want your travel day to end. If you have friends or family picking you up at the airport you might want to let them know of your delay as well… if you ever want them to pick you up at the airport again.
At some point when delays get long enough a flight will be canceled. The new passenger’s rights laws in the U.S. limits how long you can be delayed in a plane on the runway. This has led to a greater number of flights that previously would be delayed simply being canceled. Typically if a flight is canceled the airline will try and book you on a new flight but expect ticket agents and gate agents to be overwhelmed. You might be better off calling your travel agent if you have one, or the airline’s 800 number.
If all else fails during a 3-hour delay, I might also suggest writing a blog post about flight delays to pass the time