What to do if your flight is canceled or delayed for hours

Dealing with airlines can be a hassle. We recommend you plan ahead, know your rights and know what your airline has guaranteed if your flight is disrupted.

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The biggest problem with airline travel these days is all of the cancellations and delays. Most traveler complaints the last couple of years are about these disruptions, although the problems are declining. As detailed in our report The Plane Truth Part 2, consumers filed a record number of  complaints against U.S. airlines in 2022. That was followed by another record in 2023, which we looked at in our Plane Truth 2024 report.

What should you do if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed?

  1. If you don’t already have it, get the airline’s app on your phone.
  2. Most likely, you don’t necessarily want a refund. You want to get where you were going as quickly as possible. You should simultaneously:
  • See when the airline says it can get you on another flight, and see whether that works for you, and
  • See whether there’s another airline at the same airport that has seats available on its next flight to your destination.
  1. If the airline can get you on the next flight and that works for you, that’s great. Depending on the airline, you still are eligible for some consideration for meal vouchers, hotels, ground transportation, etc., per the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT’s) commitment from the top 10 airlines. Request (nicely) what you’re entitled to. See the promises the airlines have made and that they must abide by.
  2. If you can get a seat on another airline, ask the airline that canceled or delayed your flight to transfer your ticket at no cost to you. Airlines don’t have to do this unless it’s a “controllable” cancellation or delay and they’ve vowed to the DOT they’ll honor this.
    But many will, if you ask. As of July 2024, Airlines that have made this vow: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United. Those that have not: Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit.
  3. If the airline can’t/won’t rebook you on their airline or with a competitor, you may have to regroup. This could involve you buying a new ticket on another airline and using the money from the refund to cover all or most of the cost. (But you likely won’t get your refund for seven to 20 days, depending on how you paid.)
    If you want a refund and ask for it and the airline refuses or tries to push you toward a voucher that you don’t want,
    file a complaint with the DOT.
  4. Be nice. No matter what happens, the person you’re dealing with probably didn’t cause your problem, but they might be able to help you fix it. Plus, it’s always a good idea to be nice.

Your rights when your flight is canceled or delayed

While some flights are delayed because of severe weather, a security delay or FAA ground stop, the single biggest reason for delays is an issue within the airline’s control, according to the DOT. “Examples include: maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading and fueling,” DOT says. In 2022, issues within the air carrier’s control was the No. 1 reason for delays every month except in July.

What airlines must do when there’s a cancellation or significant delay within the airlines’ control:

  • All of the top 10 carriers will rebook a passenger on their own airline and provide money or a voucher for meals. 
  • With a controllable cancellation, six will rebook a passenger on a partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no additional cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United.
    Four will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit.
  • With a controllable delay of three hours or more, five will rebook a passenger on a partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no additional cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United.
    Five will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest and Spirit.
  • When a cancellation or delay within the airline’s control strands a customer overnight, all except Frontier will pay for a hotel and ground transportation to and from a hotel.
  • In cases of cancellation or a delay of three hours or more, Frontier will only rebook with its own airline and provide cash or a voucher for a meal.

You also have legal rights if you are bumped from a flight, if your baggage is misplaced or lost or if you’re stuck on the tarmac. More on these issues below.

Here’s a look at your other rights:

At the airport

Involuntary bumping

If you’re involuntarily bumped, airlines must provide you with a list of your rights and compensate you according to how long your flight will be delayed.

DELAY COMPENSATION

Less than 1 hour None

1-2 hours (Domestic) 200% of your one-way fare up to $775

1-4 hours (International) 200% of your one-way fare up to $775

Over 2 hours (Domestic) 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550

Over 4 hours (International) 400% of your one-way fare up to $1,550

Tarmac delays

Airlines have to provide medical attention and working bathrooms the entire time the plane is on the tarmac. After two hours, you must have food and water. After three hours, you must be in the air or back in the airport—or the airline faces massive fines.

Flight delays

If your flight is delayed more than 30 minutes, airlines must give you regular updates. It’s expected that, soon, you’ll have more rights if your flight is delayed by three hours or more.

Post-flight problems

Delayed bags

If your bag is delayed overnight, most airlines set guidelines that allow their employees to  reimburse you for some emergency expenses.

Lost bags

Airlines must refund any checked baggage fees, and reimburse you for the lost items up to $3,800.

Complaints

Airlines are required to give you information on how to file complaints. Airlines need to acknowledge written complaints within 30 days and respond within 60 days.

If you don’t get satisfaction from an airline, file an official complaint with the FAA.

To file a complaint against an airline, an airport or a ticket agent, go to https://airconsumer.dot.gov/escomplaint/ConsumerForm.cfm

For other information about passenger rights, go to https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer

Topics
Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.