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Each year, thousands of air travellers are stranded when snowstorms, hurricanes and even erupting volcanoes cause flight cancellations worldwide. But even though inclement weather is nothing new, said consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, the reason airlines are not better at coping with its fallout is simply, they do not have to be.
"Airlines are not required to do anything if a [disruption] is caused by what's referred to as an 'act of God'. So, a volcano is an 'act of God', weather is an 'act of God', even a civil disturbance - any event beyond the airline's control - can be considered an 'act of God'."
Unfortunately, explained Elliott, co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance and a nationally syndicated travel columnist, airlines sometimes use weather as an excuse for delays that are primarily caused by other issues. "Passengers get upset when they think that the airline is not playing straight. They'll look outside and see a blue sky... and the airline will say, 'Well, it's raining in Dallas or Atlanta.' And you find out later that actually the crew timed out and the pilot didn't make the flight in time."
Whether or not the weather outside is frightful, knowing how and why airlines operate the way they do is a first step in minimizing the effects of travel calamity. Here are our top tips for dealing with delays, cancellations, overbookings and other air travel disruptions.
Before you leave:
1. Read your airline's Contract of Carriage and customer service plan
Before travelling, look up carriage contracts and customer service agreements on your airline's website. (If you do not have time to read them, print them out and stick them in your carry-on bag, in case you encounter a problem.) These generally detail the airline's policies regarding flight delays and cancellations, tarmac delays, overbookings and accommodations for passengers with disabilities or special needs. Find out ahead of time when and how your airline is willing to compensate you in the event of a cancellation or overbooking. Being aware of airline policy arms you with the knowledge necessary to begin a negotiation.
2. Game plan with the airline before a cancellation
Check the weather in your departure and destination cities. If a storm is brewing, call your airline and ask if delays or cancellations are likely. Find out when the next flights are, whether your agent can arrange for ground transportation to a nearby airport that may not have delays and whether alternative itineraries exist. You do not have to wait until every passenger on your plane is trying to get rerouted to decide on your exit strategy.
3. Avoid problem airports, when possible
Try to avoid airports that do not handle storms well. This past Christmas, for instance, just a few inches of snow caused London's ill-prepared Heathrow Airport to shut down. However, even cities accustomed to weather occurrences like snow (such as New York or Paris) can be caught off guard at peak travel times because most flights operate at capacity. One solution is to fly on days when others are not flying. "If you can travel on Christmas Day or on Thanksgiving Day, flights are pretty wide open, so if you're delayed, you can get on another flight pretty easily," Elliott suggested. According to Forbes's list of The World's Most Delayed Airports, Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai and Istanbul Ataturk International Airport were ranked as the three worst airports in 2010.
4. Know when travel insurance makes sense
"My rule of thumb", said Elliott, "is that if it's a trip that you can afford to lose, you shouldn't buy insurance on it. So, typically anything under $10,000 [total] because you're going to spend 7, 8, 9 percent of the trip on insurance." The important thing is to read the policy's fine print. Some do not even cover weather delays, Elliott warned, so read your policy fully before deciding to cancel a trip. "Don't accept anything they tell you over the phone without reading the policy," Elliott advises. That said, if you are visiting a place with an erupting volcano or travelling during hurricane season or a time of civil unrest, travel insurance may be a wise choice if you can afford it. In the New York Times article When in Doubt, Insure, author Michelle Higgins recommends first identifying the concerns, then pricing it out and understanding the policy limitations.
While it is happening:
5. Work every angle
As soon as your flight is cancelled or delayed, call your airline and, at the same time, get in line to speak with a ticket agent. "You want to play both sides here", said Elliott. While calling may get you rerouted more quickly, speaking with an agent in person may land you a better deal. Some airlines even allow you to rebook online via Twitter, and Jaunted suggests giving as much information as possible in your first tweet. If you booked your flight through a travel agency, call your travel agent before speaking with the airline.
6. Play the status card
When bad weather hits, airlines are more willing to accommodate elite passengers for the same reason that they claim they do not have to accommodate any passengers: it benefits their bottom line. If you are a frequent flier, or a first or business class passenger, your status becomes a bargaining chip that you can use to quickly rebook a flight or to get vouchers for hotel rooms, food and other amenities.
7. Play the heartstrings card
If you have a sob story, use it. Agents can help those in need and tend to be more willing to do so during the holidays. "If you have five young children with you", Elliott said, "chances are, the ticket agent is going to look at you and say, yeah, let's take care of you. We don't want you to sleep on the floor of the terminal with five young kids." If your inclination is to invent a sob story, remember that lying (as in most situations) can backfire.
8. Do not get crazy
Do not be that guy. You know, the one threatening the gate agent and throwing a hysterical fit. Theatrics rarely work because ticket agents have seen it all before, Elliott said. Agents are far more likely to help you out if you are calm and respectful. Plus, belligerent passengers can get themselves thrown off of flights.
9. Think outside the box
If you absolutely need to get to your destination on time - say, your significant other went into labour prematurely or your brother's wedding is tomorrow - consider every possible option. Rent a car, or hop on a bus or train, and head to a city whose airports are not facing delays. Or, vice versa, fly to a different city and take a bus or train from there.
When all else fails:
10. Know your rights
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration has measures in place to protect consumers. To report lost or damaged luggage, denied boarding or ticketing problems, call (202) 366-2220. To find out more about your rights as a passenger or report air travel concerns including safety issues, call 1 (866) TELL-FAA or visit the Aviation Consumer Protection's website. When faced with overbookings, be aware of what compensation you are owed. The Department of Transportation also has an explanation on their website.
11. Make the best of it
Take ten deep breaths, hunker down and find a way to make the best of it. Read a good book, listen to music, play games on your smartphone, catch up on work or watch a movie on your laptop. Alternatively, browse around an airport bookstore and get some reading done there. If your layover has no end in sight, turn your unfortunate situation into an adventure. Condé Nast Traveler's Perrin Post lists some suggestions for layovers, including a 20-minute taxi ride to Hawaii's Waikiki Beach from Honolulu International Airport, a 30-minute taxi ride to a panda reserve from China's Chengdu Shuangliu Airport and a 30-minute public transport trip from London Heathrow to the National Gallery.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.