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Airline Cancellations: What To Do

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Carol Sottili
The Flight Crew
Thursday, April 10, 2008; 1:00 PM

Hundreds of American Airlines planes remained grounded today for safety inspections, as the country's largest carrier scrapped another 900 flights in its third day of widespread cancellations.

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Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines canceled more than 30 total departures yesterday to conduct inspections. The groundings were the latest in a series of cancellations by several carriers after problems were discovered with how airlines comply with federal safety mandates. The cancellations stranded thousands of passengers at Washington's three major airports and across the nation.

Carol Sottili of the Washington Post Travel section was online Thursday, April 10 to offer practical advice to travelers who are confronted by the airline situation.

A transcript follows.

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Alexandria, Va.: Reading between the lines, if I have a nonstop American flight this weekend, should I be okay?

And if I had a short flight tomorrow, I might not be?

Who is at risk of being cancelled and who is not?

Carol Sottili: American says that everything will be back to normal by Saturday. But, even if there are no more cancellations this weekend, it's not going to be a done deal. Hundreds of thousands of travelers have been stranded, and they have to be placed on other flights. My educated guess is that planes will be packed this weekend. If you have a seat, get there early.

The plane that is being inspected is the MD-80, so shorter-haul flights that utilize small jets are more likely not to be cancelled. But there has been some movement of planes between flights, so you need to check first.

Everyone is at risk.

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Bowie: Carol, I'm scheduled to be on a flight tomorrow morning, on US Air. Should I be worried?

Carol Sottili: US Airways has not canceled any flights this week - yet. But I think it's likely that we haven't seen the last of canceled flights. Federal regulators are stepping up their review of aircraft safety compliance, and the audits are scheduled to go through the end of June. So expect more cancellations.

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Europe-bound and worried: This only has the potential to affect flights run by U.S.-based airlines, right? If I'm flying, say, AerLingus to Dublin or Lufthansa to the States over the next month or two, should I worry?

Carol Sottili: The FAA does issue safety permits to foreign carriers, but the process is very different. Go to this link for details:

www.faa.gov/safety/programs_initiatives/oversight/iasa/more/Much less chance of a foreign carrier being impacted by this.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi Carol, I've got a roundtrip on American from Chicago-Philly next Monday and Tuesday. Of course it's on MD-80s. Should I be worried? How much longer is this debacle going to last? Thanks.

Carol Sottili: American is saying that inspection of MD-80s will be completed by Saturday. You should be fine. But nothing is certain. Check with the airline in advance.

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Miles collector: Carol,

I come to you, "the oracle of airlines", we have a LOT of miles with American. Should we burn them at a faster pace?

In other words, with the closing of the smaller airlines, should we be concerned about the stability of American?

Carol Sottili: I don't think you need to be concerned that American is going to go belly-up any time soon. But I'd use those miles. Airlines keep changing the rules about miles, and they get less valuable all the time. Plus it's difficult to keep up with the regs. I just lost all my American miles because, while I flew American last year, I used miles to do so, so I didn't earn any new miles. So my remaining miles expired. I should have known better, right?

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Philadelphia, Pa.: When the inspections are made, is it the inspector or the airline who decides to ground the plane? About how long does an inspection take before a plane is deemed safe to return to service? Is there any data on how many planes are found to need repairs, and about how long do the repairs take?

Carol Sottili: I'm not an expert on airline policy, but here's the latest from a wire story:

An FAA spokesman said that the agency hadn't ordered the carrier to take any action but had only notified American that it wasn't in compliance with what's called an airworthiness directive, an order from the federal government about inspecting for potentially faulty equipment.

As of Wednesday afternoon (the latest info released by American) 179 MD8- aircraft were completely inspected. Sixty of those were returned to service. 119 were still undergoing work. And 121 more remained to be inspected.

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is anyone else thinking this: Could this whole safety inspection thing have been handled better, or does anyone think that doing hundreds of cancelled flights is a way of perhaps the airlines making a statement about the inconvenience to passengers if they have to follow all of the rules?

Why now? Perhaps there is something going on behind the scenes -- like perhaps these airlines also got an official "OK" to wait on the inspections that they cannot rely on, and do not want to face a $10 million fine?

Carol Sottili: There are lots of theories floating around about this.

Of course, it could have been handled better. It all started with the disclosure last month that the FAA were giving Southwest lots of leeway in following safety directives. So now, all the airlines are running around trying to make sure they're up to code. Obviously, lack of communication and organization all along has played a key role.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: As one of the passengers affected by canceled flights yesterday, I want to put a good word in for the staff at the American Airlines Admiral's Clubs. They were on the front lines dealing with frequent flyers (Purchasing a membership is an admission that one flies much too much). They checked other American alternates and put me on a US Air flight so I got home ahead of schedule, and then thanked me for the opportunity to do so. Don't take me for an airline apologist. At the end of a two week business trip to three Chinese cities and then Denver, I was not in the mood. But, they made it bearable.

Carol Sottili: Anyone who isn't a frequent flyer have a similarly good experience?

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Washington, D.C.: How do I figure out what type of plane my AA flight is? I'm flying on the 19th so I doubt there will be a problem but would like to know.

Carol Sottili: Go to the www.aa.com Web site and check the flight via reservations. It'll tell you the plane type. But remember the airline reserves the right to change aircraft.

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D.C.: I have a flight on American in three weeks. Will all the problems be worked out by then?

Carol Sottili: Oh crystal ball, what do you say? The future is cloudy. I'd recommend that you keep up with the news and sign up for flight notifications on www.aa.com.

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Air Jamaica: We are scheduled to fly from BWI to Montego Bay on Air Jamaica on June 6. Lately I have heard about problems with AJ - a strike, delayed and cancelled planes. Should I be concerned?

Carol Sottili: Lots of airlines are in trouble. And several have suddenly stopped flying in recent weeks (I'll post a link to detailed info on that subject). Air Jamaica's flight attendants walked out on March 25, causing some cancellations. And the government-owned airline has some financial issues. But I don't have any information that would indicate it's going to go out of business any time soon. That said, we were surprised when ATA suddenly stopped flying.

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washingtonpost.com: Insta-CoGo: Where Have All The Airlines Gone? (Travel Log blog, washingtonpost.com)

Carol Sottili: Here's the link on airline woes.

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Reston: American just sent me a message that my return flight on Mon. from DC to St. Louis was being cancelled, but so far I can't get thru to anyone to reschedule. Is this part of this whole mess?

Carol Sottili: I'm sure it is. I'm scheduled to fly American to St. Louis on Saturday. I have a feeling I may be staying home. Keep trying to call American, and send them an email message via the link at www.aa.com/aa/pubcontent/en_US/urls/md80.jsp

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Georgetown, D.C. -- flight tomorrow!!: I'm flying on American to Dallas tomorrow evening for a wedding this weekend! So far, the flight is showing up as on time, but I'm obviously worried. Any advice for ensuring I get to my destination tomorrow? If my flight is cancelled - what steps can be taken to complete my trip?

Carol Sottili: Start doing your homework now. Find out what other airlines fly to Dallas, and look at all three airports (BWI, IAD and DCA). If you buy a ticket on Southwest, you can cancel the flight and use the full amount toward another flight, as long as you take that flight within a year.

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DCA: Help! am I going to get bumped off of my flight tomorrow (assuming it's on time) to make up for all the cancellations on the same route all week?!

Carol Sottili: I have no doubt that there will be involuntary bumping in the next few days. Get to the airport early. You're more likely to get bumped if you're flying on a frequent flyer ticket or you paid bottom dollar.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: My husband's booking a Virgin America flight for April 30 -- are their planes too new for these recent problems?

Carol Sottili: Any aircraft can be affected by a FAA directive, but Virgin America flies new Airbus A319s and A320s, so I think you'll be fine.

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OK experience with AA: My husband flew from our home in Saint Lucia to DC yesterday, via San Juan and Miami. His first leg flight went off fine (St. Lucia to San Juan), but his San Juan flight was delayed, causing him to miss his Miami to DC flight. AA booked alternative reservations for him while still in San Juan, so he was able to get on the first flight today to DC from Miami and they provided him with a plethora of vouchers. While he would have preferred not to overnight in Miami, it was handled well.

Carol Sottili: While it's not clear that American MUST put people up in hotels or hand out vouchers, the airline has been doing just that. The airline's contract of carriage states that if the cancellations are the result of a "force majeure event," which includes "any government regulation, demand or requirement," the airline has to do nothing except offer an involuntary refund. Up for discussion on whether it is a "force majeure event" as the FAA didn't demand that the airline ground its jets.

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Waldorf, Md.: I'm flying to Las Vegas on April 23rd on Jet Blue. Do you think there will be any cancellations for Jet Blue planes?

Carol Sottili: JetBlue also flies new Airbus 320s, so you'll probably be fine.

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Worried re US Airways having cancellations: I have an international flight coming up the end of this month. To get to it, I have to take US Airways to my gateway airport, so I've scheduled a 6-hour layover (and US Airways has another flight in between, in case mine is cancelled). Problem is, my international flight is to someplace so remote it only goes twice a week, so if I miss that flight due to Us Airways having cancellations I'm in a pickle. Any suggestions? If US Airways cancels a lot of flights that day (as American is doing now), would I be a higher priority passenger because of connecting to an international flight (even though I'm a coach passenger who bought my ticket at a discount)?

Carol Sottili: If US Airways is in the middle of a similar event during your trip, all bets are off. You'll need to plead your case along with everyone else, and hope to catch the ear of a sympathetic reservationist. And go prepared. If you know that another airline will get you there in time to make the flight, have all that info at your fingertips so you can tell them what you need.

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Miami, Fla.: No one has been mentioning what are my rights as a passenger when the airlines - as American is doing - cancels flights because of something other than the weather? thanks

Carol Sottili: Look to my earlier answer. I think there's reason for debate. If American is at fault for causing these cancellations, and they can't get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, they must provide overnight accommodations. But is this a force majeure event? Meanwhile, the airline has been treating it as their responsibility, and giving out vouchers and hotel space.

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DCA: more likely to get bumped if you're flying on frequent flyer miles or paid bottom dollar...

bottom dollar meaning Travelocity and the like, or coach fare from aa.com?

Carol Sottili: I don't think the origin of the ticket is as important as the amount paid. For example, my husband and a colleague flew home together from a business trip. My husband had just made his reservations the day before, so his ticket cost a bundle. The other guy had purchased a cheap seat in advance. Guess who got bumped? Not my husband.

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suggestion for worried: Perhaps he/she should plan on leaving a day ahead? Things are so chaotic now, perhaps she can talk to a sympathetic ear now, and enjoy the prep for the trip instead of worrying.

(Just glad we don't have air travel plans in the near future.)

Carol Sottili: That could work, unless it's a multi-day event such as what American is experiencing now.

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Portland, Ore.: How will this affect other airlines, such as Northwest? I'm just wondering if it might affect my trip next week.

Carol Sottili: I feel secure saying that other airlines will cancel flights in coming weeks. Alaska and Midwest are also canceling flights today. The FAA audits are ongoing, and won't be completed until June 30.

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Arlington, VA: I am flying on American to LAX tomorrow morning--not an MD-80. Do I still have reason to worry?

Carol Sottili: Right now, American is inspected only MD-80s, but even if your flight is on a different aircraft, the airline could switch it out. Yes, you should worry, but not as much.

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Washington, D.C.: I am scheduled to fly AA tomorrow (4/11/08) from IAD going directly to LAX, my flight is on a 737-800, do you think they are leaving on time?

Carol Sottili: No clue. You need to sign up for flight notification at www.aa.com.

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Georgetown, D.C. - flight tomorrow: Thanks. as a follow-up, do you think I should go ahead and buy a ticket, or just be armed with the necessary research and ready to buy tomorrow? Or should I wait and see what American can do for me if the flight is cancelled -- I have the advantage of being able to get to DCA in 15 minutes thanks to the metro, do I have a better chance of being put on another carrier's flight if I go to the airport and talk with someone in person?

Carol Sottili: What type of plane are you flying? If it is an MD-80, was your flight already cancelled, but is now running again (you can look that info up at www.aa.com)? I don't know that I'd buy a ticket now unless I had some cash to burn. Because most carriers do charge hefty fees for not using a ticket, and you'll never get your money back. If your flight is cancelled, yes, you need to be at the airport to get put on another flight. But if you don't have a car, you're going to be limited to flying out of DCA.

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Washington, D.C.: Who gets the gates of ATA Airlines (and other defunct airlines) at places like DCA, Honolulu, etc.? I have a friend in Virginia who would love to see Southwest get a few gates at DCA.

Carol Sottili: Southwest isn't going to start flying out of DCA. Not sure who got/is getting ATA's gates at Reagan National. The airline stopped flying out that airport last year.

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GRRRR!: Of course that Admirals Club member got good treatment--the wealthy business flyers are the only ones who do these days. The rest of us poor schlubs in steerage just have to take whatever is dished out.

Carol Sottili: I have mixed feelings on this. If I pay lots more for a ticket, shouldn't I get better service?

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D.C.: Today's online NY Times has a article about what to do if you are flying in the next few days. One take home message is to "trust no one." That is, you don't often find out about flight cancellations or major delays until you arrive at the airport.

I've often experienced this when there were no widely publicized groundings.

Are there any other reliable sources (aside from the airline) to find late breaking updates on a flight's status?

Carol Sottili: Try www.flightstats.com. And go directly to the airport site: www.mwaa.com for DCA and IAD, www.bwiairport.com for BWI.

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Fairfax, Va.: For these type of airline initiated cancellations, if I booked my flight through Expedia, do I go to Expedia or the airline to get a new flight?

Carol Sottili: Try Expedia first.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How much warning do the airlines have that a flight is being canceled? I ask, because I asked this question before during bad weather. If I know a flight is going to be canceled, I am willing to fly out a day early. I made the offer to US Air once before a storm, but they insisted I fly my original flight (unless I would pay an extra $700), which, they later canceled, leaving me stranded. If US Air does cancel my flight for an inspection, if they let me know soon enough, I am available to leave earlier and present one less person in the midst of their rescheduling mess.

Carol Sottili: There's usually no warning, and there are no rules about that. But, in American's case, if you have a flight on an MD-80 booked between now and April 11, you can choose to cancel even before your flight is canceled, but you must fly by April 17. Go to www.aa.com for details.

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Washington, DC: Using a refundable ticket, I flew from Washington National to Austin TX via DFW on Monday -- just as American began pulling MD-80s out of service. I woke up Wednesday morning to discover that the leg of my flight back to Washington National that morning from Austin to Dallas-Ft. Worth was canceled. I tried to reach American on the phone but couldn't get through. I called my travel agent and found a United flight that was bound for Washington Dulles. That flight added $120 to the total cost of the ticket. Needless to say, I took the United flight. Is it possible that American will reimburse the difference, or should I just count myself as one of the fortunate few who managed to avoid a lot of additional hassles?

Carol Sottili: I would follow American's directive (go to www.aa.com) and email that information to the airline. I think chances of reimbursement aren't good, but why not try?

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Georgetown, D.C. - flight tomorrow: thanks for all your help, and kudos to washingtonpost.com for recognizing the need for this conversation!

I am flying on an MD-80, and my flight was cancelled Tues, Wed, and today (unfortunately). Not looking good, but so far, it's not cancelled. as a plus, there are only 3 cancellations for the nonstop to Dallas tomorrow compared to about 10 yesterday and today. I am limited to DCA, but I will be ready first thing tomorrow morning (for my 5:40 pm flight) with flight schedules for every other airline at DCA that flies to Dallas.

ugh. what a mess. Thanks again for your help.

Carol Sottili: I predict you'll get to Dallas tomorrow.

Thanks everyone for participating. We'll try our best to keep you up-to-date via our blogs and chats. Maybe this is a good time to snuggle in at home with a good book and a nice bottle of wine!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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