Can You Get Compensated for a Canceled Flight? It Depends.

With the Polar Vortex bring air traffic to a virtual standstill over the last few days, a lot of air passengers have been left frustrated and angry. While airlines are doing their best to rebook passengers on different flights, the backlog has left some passengers stranded for days, subsisting on expensive airport food and stuck paying for unanticipated hotel stays. In some cases, passengers have given up entirely, instead renting a car and driving to their final destinations.

If you were among the unlucky air passengers to be stranded by the storm, what kind of compensation are you entitled to?  It all depends on which airline you're booked on and the formal reason for your flight's cancellation or delay.

Are you eligible for compensation?

It depends. In general, you can get some kind of compensation if the airline is at fault, like if they oversold the flight and you were bumped, or if there's a mechanical issue. But if the cancellation was due to weather or other circumstances beyond the airlines' control, no compensation is required. Technically, that means that airlines don't owe anything to passengers who were left stranded by the Polar Vortex.

However, JetBlue is offering some consolation for the recent winter storm delays in the form of TrueBlue points for members and JetBlue credit for non-members:

We also hear that JetBlue may be compensating passengers for expenses related to the cancellations, such as hotel stays and meals. If you were among those JetBlue passengers affected, send a copy of your receipts to hercules@jetblue.com.

Other airlines might offer similar compensation for storm delays, but probably will not offer it unless you ask directly. And the bottom line is that you SHOULD ask - especially if you paid for a hotel room or meals out of your own pocket.

What if your plane was stuck on the tarmac?

The US Department of Transportation's page for airline consumers states that you can't be kept on the plane for more than 3 hours for a domestic flight, or 4 hours for international, without allowing passengers a chance to get off. There are safety and security exceptions, however, so if you were stuck on a plane for longer than is usually allowed during the storm, the airlines may cite safety concerns. Airlines fined for tarmac delays in the past have issued refunds, vouchers and frequent flyer miles for compensation, but it's the DOT that determines the amount of the fine for each individual incident, so there's no set amount or method.

Finding a Flight with Another Airline

If you are able to find a flight out with different airline, the DOT says that you should ask the first airline to "endorse" your new ticket to the new airline, which may prevent you from paying a fare increase above what you paid the first airline. Not all airlines do this, nor do they all honor such endorsements, but the worst that can happen is that they say no.

Canceling Your Trip Entirely

If your flight delay or cancellation leads you to cancel your whole trip, the airlines are required to refund any unused portion of your transportation. That includes non-refundable tickets and bag fees.

Other General Tips for Canceled Flights

At the very least, you'll want to get to wherever you're going as quickly as possible, and there are some steps you can take to maximize your chances for a speedy rebooking.

  1. Get in line for the counter with everyone else, but also call the airline. Chances are that you'll be on hold for a bit, but you're already standing in line too, so you've got time. One will get you to a live person who can book you on another flight faster than the other, and it might be the thing that gets you on a new flight sooner rather than later. If the airline's phones are completely jammed, try calling their international number instead, which probably isn't getting hit so hard.
  2. Rebook yourself online. Most airports are wired up with wi-fi these days, or you can launch your own hotspot with your phone if that's part of your data plan. Print your new boarding passes at a self-serve kiosk and go.
  3. Take your story to Twitter. If you're hitting a lot of brick walls, start tweeting at the airline. You may be surprised by how quickly your issue is resolved. Consider including a local news outlet if the situation is turning into a major nightmare for everyone.
  4. Be flexible. Many major cities have more than one major airport - Chicago has both O'Hare and Midway, for example. New Yorkers get their choice of JFK, LaGuardia or even Newark. Another alternative is to fly into a different city that's reasonable close by. It's not that far from Milwaukee to Chicago, and the airline may pick up the tab for the bus ticket you'll need for that final leg.
  5. Save your receipts. Hotels, food and other expenses you incur as a result of the delay might be reimbursed by the airline.
  6. Understand the true reason for your cancellation - it matters. If your flight was canceled due to weather, then as we mentioned earlier, the airline technically owes you nothing. Bad weather is simply a risk that passengers know they're taking on when they initially book a flight, and airlines don't owe anything for circumstances beyond their control. But if your flight was canceled because the airline didn't have enough eligible pilots available to push through the backlog, that may be the airline's fault.

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