When Flights Go Bad

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A relative called me yesterday from the Philadelphia airport. Her flight on US Airways had been cancelled, and she was only given standby for the next two departures. When she was not accommodated, she missed her dinner at her destination and was not happy.

How To Handle The Cancellation

She called me for my advice, but there wasn’t much I was able to offer her. Despite the beautiful day in Philly, the airline had cited weather, as they usually do, but it is very difficult to prove that weather wasn’t at least partially responsible. My research indicated that there had been weather and/or air traffic control delays earlier in the day, preventing the departure of the aircraft from its previous flight. In response, US Airways cancelled her leg of the flight, while the aircraft bypassed Philly and proceeded to her destination, Providence, without her.

My best suggestion was to find another carrier to Providence so she could arrive there on-time. Southwest flies that route, and has reasonable last minute fares ($159 one way), but their next flight left about the same time as the one she was confirmed on. What was news to her was that she would have been eligible for a partial refund of her ticket had she decided not to board her re-scheduled flight. She was astonished, but logically it makes sense. If I was about to depart Denver for the weekend, and there was a blizzard, the airline would cancel flights, and may not be able to accommodate me until a day or two later, perhaps after my scheduled return. In response, I might just choose not to fly. Since the airline failed to provide the service, they will have to refund my money. Likewise, if I choose to fly another carrier or to take ground transportation, the same conditions apply. Note that none of this is clearly spelled out in the contract of carriage, so there is some element of airline discretion. For example, if they cancel your flight and offer you another flight an hour later, you are unlikely to receive a refund if you choose to buy another ticket. In her case, the next flight they could confirm her on was five hours later, and she would have had a good case for a partial refund if she flew another carrier or took ground transportation to get to her destination.

In that case, the hard part would have been making sure her return flight was not cancelled. I advised her to contact US Airways and specifically inform them that she will not be boarding the newly scheduled flight, but I have no confidence that anyone at that carrier could successfully over-rule their computers and restore her return reservation. In fact, this is exactly what happened to my wife and I on our honeymoon in Brazil. We were told by the airline not to board a flight that would have misconnected us.  Nevertheless, the rest of our itinerary was cancelled and we had to spend hours resolving their screw up.

Trip In Vain

Another option that could have been available to her was to ask for a refund for a “trip in vain”. In the event that a delay or cancellation causes you to miss the event you are traveling to, you can choose simply not to fly at all and can usually get a refund. This would apply if you are flying out in the afternoon for a dinner and returning the next morning, and the delay or cancellation means that you will miss the dinner. In this situation, the entire trip makes no sense. Using the term trip in vain, any competent airline agent will be able to process your refund.

Conclusions

The only thing more frustrating than finding out your flight is cancelled is learning that the airlines are claiming no responsibility and are unable to get you a confirmed seat on the next flight. In these situations there is little recourse but to look for alternative transportation. Fortunately, passengers are entitled to a refund if the airline cannot get them to their destination in a reasonable amount of time and the traveler chooses to skip the flight entirely.

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