It should have been a two-hour flight from Chicago to D.C. as the final leg of a work trip. But when Greg Regan finally made it home during a United meltdown late last month, the journey had ballooned into roughly 40 hours.
“I really like Chicago food,” said Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a labor organization made up of 37 unions. “I did enjoy that aspect of it.” Everything else? Not so much.
He was just one of thousands of fliers whose travel plans have been disrupted - or outright demolished - as storms wreaked havoc on airline schedules this summer. United canceled more than 2,400 flights and delayed thousands more in the days leading up to the Fourth of July due in part to bad weather. Over the weekend, about 2,450 U.S. flights were canceled and more than 19,000 were delayed, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
The disruption follows last year’s messy summer, when about 55,000 flights operated by U.S. carriers were canceled and more than 550,000 flights were late, according to FlightAware.
There are steps travelers can take to avoid serious delays and cancellations - and tools for when they do get caught in storm-related ordeals.
Choose the right flights
Scott Keyes, founder of flight alert service Going, said travelers should choose the options that have better records of on-time performance: early-morning flights and nonstop flights.
He said weather tends to be better in the morning than afternoon, when temperatures rise and thunderstorms increase. And flying early in the day means you’re not rolling the dice on weather elsewhere in the country.
“When you take that first morning flight, the aircraft is already at the airport and ready to go,” Keyes said. “It doesn’t have to come from anywhere else.”
Nonstop flights are also far less likely to experience significant disruptions than flights with layovers, he said. Even if a direct flight is delayed, travelers should still expect to arrive at their destination; with a connection, they could miss that second leg and then run the risk of not getting a seat on a new flight to the final stop.
Kathleen Bangs, spokeswoman for FlightAware and a former airline pilot, said in an email that passengers who are taking a connecting flight need to examine the layover time to make sure it’s feasible, considering the distance between terminals, who is in the traveling party and how fast everyone can get around.
Even if someone has booked a less-than-opportune flight, Keyes said many airlines have gotten rid of change fees. It could be worth adjusting the plan, though typically fliers will be responsible to pay for the difference in fare. If an airline offers a weather-related travel waiver, however, that fare difference should not apply.
Watch the weather
Bangs said passengers should start watching weather forecasts as early as two days before their flight to get an idea if they might face delays and cancellations - even from storms far away from their departure airport.
She recommends the Weather Prediction Center’s National Forecast Chart, which she called “exceptionally accurate” at showing weather fronts that will impact the United States one to three days in advance.
Stay on top of your plane (figuratively)
Keyes recommends that travelers use the FlightAware app, which has a “Where is my plane?” feature for each flight. He said that if your inbound plane is on time, it’s a good sign that your outbound flight will be, too - though there are no guarantees. Likewise, a delayed inbound flight is likely to have a domino effect on following trips, but the airline could take action like swapping in a new plane.
“You don’t want to take these with 100 percent certainty,” he said. “But it’s a pretty big tell.”
If all signs are pointing to a significant delay or cancellation, he said travelers who are tuned in can try to snag a seat on another flight before the rest of the passengers do the same.
“Empty seats on a plane, not only are they few and far between,” he said. “It’s a first-come, first-serve basis.”
Bangs said the tracking option is one of the app’s most popular features.
“There’s nothing as comforting as you check your alarm clock the night before, as you got to sleep, that your jet is already at your airport - at the gate - waiting for your early morning departure,” she said in her email.
Know your plan B (and C)
Bangs said fliers should always have a backup plan for multiple scenarios: if their flight from home is canceled, if a return is axed or if a connecting flight is called off. She said that planning could even affect which cities people choose for layovers.
“If the worst-case scenario occurs - your airline strands you at an interim airport or at your destination airport - have a plan to either continue your trip or get home,” she said in her email. “Anything ranging from enough balance on a credit card to purchase another ticket if necessary (while you negotiate later with the airline for compensation) to trading in frequent flier miles for a last-minute ticket if stranded.”
Bangs said maps are a disrupted passenger’s friend: If flights out of or to one airport aren’t available, travelers should consider nearby options. Even not-super-close alternatives - think Philadelphia instead of Newark - could be better than a days-long wait for the next available flight, which is what happened during the holiday Southwest meltdown.
“A tired, harried airline [reservations] agent may not suggest these options - you need to look at a map and figure it out for them,” she said. She once had an airline in Dallas-Fort Worth tell her there were no seats for two days when her flight to D.C. was canceled. Bangs said she went to another airline, found a flight to Cleveland that had regional connection to D.C. “and was there in time for dinner.”
Regan, whose June flights to D.C. on United were delayed and canceled, considered taking Amtrak instead, with no luck.
“It would have been a long train ride, but I love taking the train,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it was sold out.”
Finally, a customer service agent for American Airlines was able to snag a seat for him on that airline, with a layover in Charlotte. He said in retrospect, he should have looked for flights out of Midway and not just O’Hare, and all of the airports in the D.C. metro area.
“Look at the flight board, see which airlines are getting you to any airport in your city,” he said.
If your flight is canceled, you may end up waiting in line with dozens or hundreds of fellow travelers. But Keyes recommends also calling the airline from line - and not just the regular customer service hotline. He said international airline help numbers will also have agents who can help, but will have a lower call volume.
But be cautious that you’re calling the right number; a flier recently encounter scammers changing airline phone numbers on Google in a trend called “malvertising.”
Airline apps have also improved, he said, making self-service rebooking options much easier.
“Not only is that oftentimes a much quicker route - and we talked about the importance of speed when you’ve got a number of people looking for available seats - it lets you sift through the options,” Keyes said.
Bangs also recommended downloading the airline’s app for access to information, booking and communication. Make sure alerts and notifications are enabled to get information as quickly as possible. She said she will still get in line for a customer service agent but spends her time reviewing options on the app, rebooking if possible, and waiting on the phone to speak to someone.
“Airline employees are probably more empowered now as a collective to take customer service action than at any time in history,” she wrote, especially those who have agreements with other airlines to rebook stranded fliers. “Use that to your advantage. Patiently explain what happened, what you need, what options you already know exist, and/or what compensation you expect for your troubles.”
Bangs said many travelers “swear by” reaching out to an airline on Twitter for a faster response, especially “in complicated situations where the line is out the door, there are no employees left at the counter, or you’re unable to make an online change.”
Regan urges travelers to be considerate of the customer service workers in the midst of tough travel situations.
“The workers who unfortunately a lot of the time are giving the bad news, they’re the ones that are going to solve the problem for you,” he said. “Always treat them with respect, always be kind.”
Claim what you’re owed
If a flight is canceled or significantly changed and a passenger decides not to take an alternative option, they are owed a refund regardless of the reason for the cancellation.
The Transportation Department also lists a dashboard showing what airlines have pledged to offer in cases of controllable delays and cancellations - which does not include bad weather.
Bangs recommends travelers who face disruption check out the department’s consumer guide to air travel for information on luggage delays, filing an airline complaint and more. She said anyone who is involuntarily bumped from a flight also has the right to be compensated and can negotiate for more than the airline offers.
Travel insurance policies may also reimburse passengers for expenses such as meals or a hotel if weather delays their flight for a certain number of hours. Insurance may also reimburse nonrefundable trip costs under the trip cancellation benefit, Meghan Walch, director of product for travel insurance comparison site InsureMyTrip, said in an email.
She warned that travel insurance covers unforeseen events, which does not apply to a known threat such as a tropical storm.
“If you’re traveling somewhere that could be in the path of a hurricane or other extreme weather, coverage would have to be purchased before a storm is named or known for coverage to possibly apply,” she wrote. “Purchasing your coverage early is always a good rule of thumb as you don’t know what could happen down the road.”