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How to get refunds if your flight is canceled

Rescheduling flights may be more difficult while strained airlines continue to recover from the pandemic

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Air travel woes returned over the weekend as bad weather hit popular spring break destinations, leading to more than 3,000 flight cancellations by U.S. airlines in two days. Airlines canceled more than 650 flights within the United States on Monday, according to flight-tracking firm FlightAware.

Thousands of travelers were left scrambling for limited seats on other flights or searching for alternate ways home. The hectic scenes marked the latest episode of struggles for an airline industry that is facing booming travel demand but is still stretched thin from the pandemic.

“The core issue here is the airline industry right now has very little what we would call operational flexibility,” said Mike Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International. “If something goes wrong, there’s no backup.”

Over the winter holidays, things went very wrong when the omicron surge sent airline crews to sick leave or isolation as winter weather exacerbated the issues. Airlines announced thousands of cancellations starting on Dec. 23 that continued into the new year.

This past summer, for a chaotic travel season rife with staffing shortages, By The Way compiled a guide for what to do if your flight gets canceled and how to get a refund you are owed. Here’s a helpful reminder.

Teachable moments from cancellation horror stories

From traveling light to booking your flight directly through the airline, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind during particularly messy travel seasons. (Video: The Washington Post)

If your flight gets canceled

The bad news is your flight has been canceled. The good news is the airline owes you a refund; Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations entitle you to one.

But be warned: Accepting the canceled flight, getting your money back and starting from scratch may put you in a position of scrambling for a more expensive flight, if you can find one at all. Then there’s the risk that your new flight may be canceled or delayed. You may want to reschedule your flight with the airline instead of going for the refund.

More bad news if a flight is canceled: It may take a long time to get rescheduled, especially during peak travel periods when flights are packed to begin with. Some small airlines don’t have multiple flights a day, or might only fly a few days a week. Because airlines have cut capacity during the pandemic, they don’t have as many flights to accommodate extra passengers.

“When they cancel one of those remaining flights, the number of empty seats on what remains in their schedule is small,” said Robert W. Mann, a consultant and former airline executive. He said travelers who do get on an alternate flight may end up having to stop or connect multiple times rather than flying direct.

While some airlines might be willing to put a passenger on another carrier, that’s not a first choice, Mann said — and some airlines don’t have the relationships with competitors to do that.

“It would cost them actual money to do that,” Mann said. “They’d rather have you take their travel voucher or their subpar alternate schedule that they offer you.”

Disappointed customers should also expect long waits for refunds. Although the massive carriers are legally obligated to pay back customers, they have been inundated with requests for months, pushing the DOT to crack down on wrongful denials and investigate delays in payment. In November, following an investigation into Air Canada, the airline reached a $4.5 million settlement with DOT, saying it had provided $570 million in required refunds over the course of the pandemic.

DOT said in a September report that in the 18 months starting in January 2020, it received 124,918 consumer complaints related to air travel — more than 84 percent of which were about refunds. That compares with about 8 percent a year before the pandemic.

How to get in touch with airlines in a hurry

If your flight gets delayed

You may not know your flight is going to be rescheduled until the last minute — maybe even after you have arrived at the airport. In August, Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Airlines For America, recommended downloading your carrier’s app to get immediate updates on your flight schedule.

Should your flight get significantly delayed, you are entitled to a refund (if you ask for one), per DOT regulations. However, every airline has a different definition of “significantly.” You will have to check with your carrier to find out if you are eligible. Even if you’re not, you may be able to get compensation for the disruption. Ask the airline if you are eligible for a meal voucher or a hotel room for the night while you wait.

Don’t like the rebooked flight? “Keep an eye on backup plans,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “If your flight were to get canceled, what are flights that this airline has that would work for me and my schedule?”

Once you have picked a new flight that works for you, get on the phone with customer service and request it specifically.

“That’s going to be much more fruitful than saying, ‘My flight got canceled, what do I do?’ ” Keyes said.

Omicron may be on your next flight. Here's how to protect yourself.

If you want to be protected

There are a few things you can do to put yourself in a better position for this uncertain time of flying.

Protecting yourself starts when you book the flight. Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, recommends booking your flights with frequent flier miles.

“Most airline frequent-flier programs will actually refund your points and taxes and fees, so it’s kind of like buying a refundable ticket,” Kelly said. “They give you maximum flexibility.”

Look for nonstop flights to your destination that depart earlier in the day. You will have fewer variables to deal with, and should something go wrong, you’ll have more rerouting options than if you were departing later.

Martin Nolan, a traveler rights expert at Skyscanner, recommends booking a flight with a flexible fare that allows for a free date or destination change. He also suggests booking travel with a credit card that offers extra protections. A good credit card company will go to bat for you if you are struggling to get a rightfully owed refund.

Adit Damodaran, economist at the travel booking app Hopper, says it is wise to prepare for the worst by padding your trip with some buffer time if you’re traveling for a special event. Don’t cut your arrival too close; find a flight a day before in case there is a delay or cancellation. Hopper also has “Rebooking Protection Services,” allowing travelers to fly on another airline if there is a disruption.

Keyes strongly urges travelers to skip checking a bag.

“If you have checked a bag and then you get to the gate and your flight gets canceled or delayed, it’s going to be more difficult to get switched to a different flight,” he said. “If there’s another flight that’s leaving 15 minutes from now or 20 minutes from now, your bag is not going to make it.”