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Why airlines are canceling hundreds of flights — and what you can do

Southwest and American cancellations enraged fliers. They might not subside any time soon.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

It’s a tough time to be an airline social media manager.

This month, both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines made headlines for canceling hundreds and delaying thousands of flights. As a result, Twitter is packed with angry travelers publicly slamming those and other major carriers for all of the inconveniences and disappointments that have followed.

Those angry tweets will probably keep coming, too, as U.S. flight disruptions look set to persist. But what’s causing them, and what can travelers do to protect themselves?

We asked experts in travel and aviation to explain.

Why is it happening?

Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency, attributed the flight disruptions to three major issues: bad weather, a labor shortage and capacity problems.

That analysis tracks with a recent statement by American Airlines, which said its issues started with “unprecedented weather” impacting its largest hubs, setting off a snowball effect that led to delays, canceled flights and disruptions to crew-member schedules.

“That, combined with the labor shortages some of our vendors are contending with and the incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand, has led us to build in additional resilience and certainty to our operation by adjusting a fraction of our scheduled flying through mid-July,” the statement said.

The summer storm season (and IT system outages in mid-June) has also plagued Southwest, spokesperson Brian Parrish said. The airline canceled flights and rescheduled customers in anticipation of widespread thunderstorms, reasoning that this gave travelers more time to prepare new itineraries.

An airline passenger was in distress. Two med students on their way to Greece stepped in.

Meanwhile, cabin crews are being stretched thin, and any new hires need to get trained or recertified before taking to the air. The need for more pilots and mechanics, Del Monte said, is paramount.

“You can’t operate a plane without somebody to fly it, and you can’t operate a plane if you can’t service it,” he said.

You also can’t operate a plane without, well, a plane — and airlines haven’t been able to bring all of theirs back since they took them out of rotation early in the pandemic, Del Monte said. Now, with a post-vaccination surge in leisure travel, airlines are scrambling to meet demand that far exceeds their predictions.

Will it get worse?

Industry insiders say flight complications may continue through the summer.

Mike Boyd, an aviation analyst with Boyd Group International, said travelers should be prepared for airlines to change your flight or put you on a new one. For a while, “it’s going to be uncertain,” he said.

But that’s not to say flight disruptions are guaranteed.

Though there is some volatility right now, “it’s important to keep in mind ... that these cancellations represent only a very small subset of these carriers’ scheduled flights,” Adit Damodaran, economist at the travel booking app Hopper, said in an email. “So for the most part, travelers are getting to where they need to go.”

What can I do to protect myself?

While you can hope for the best, prepare for the worst when it comes to your summer flying. And that preparation can start even before you book your trip.

Book your flight with cancellations in mind

According to the Department of Transportation, the earlier the flight, the better — you are less likely to experience a delay, and if your flight does get delayed or canceled, you will have more rerouting options. Jen Moyse, senior director of product for TripIt from Concur, also suggests looking for direct flights, to avoid cancellations that can affect connecting flights. If you’re traveling with your family, make sure you’re all on one reservation so that if you’re rebooked, you’ll still be together.

Martin Nolan, a traveler rights expert at SkyScanner, advises finding a ticket with a flexible fare that allows for a free date or destination change. You may also want to book hotels with no cancellation fees, in case you do have to fly at a different time than planned or miss your trip completely. Additionally, Nolan recommends travelers book their travel with a credit card that offers extra protections, in case companies are cagey about refunds.

Damodaran, for his part, suggests padding your trip with some buffer time, such as choosing to fly a day ahead of a special event, and taking advantage of Hopper’s “Rebooking Protection Services,” which allow travelers to fly on another airline if there is a disruption.

Consider buying travel insurance

Insurance may also help. Nolan said to check whether any existing policies you have cover your travels, but otherwise to look for a policy that is designed for our current covid world. You are going to want to read the fine print here: Double-check all of the terms to see what would happen if the trip were canceled or if you just didn’t want to go anymore.

Rajeev Shrivastava, chief executive of the travel insurance comparison website, said Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) trip insurance coverage is your best bet for this summer’s travel disturbances.

“Traditional trip insurance plans don’t always cover every type of cancellation, which means if you have to cancel for a specific reason, you may suffer a financial blow from forfeiting nonrefundable deposits and other prepaid travel expenses,” Shrivastava said in an email.

CFAR may help travelers get reimbursed for a wider range of travel-related expenses, such as transportation, hotel deposits, short-term rentals, car rentals and entertainment, Shrivastava said.

‘It’s so chaotic’: What flight attendants want you to know as you travel again

Lastly, working with a travel adviser or travel-management company can be its own sort of insurance during this volatile time, as it’s their job to get you to your destination even in the face of complications. Daniel Finkel, chief travel officer at the travel management company TripActions, said companies like his can handle any change to a traveler’s itinerary and save you from languishing on hold waiting for airline customer service to help.

What should I do if a flight disruption does happen?

As your trip approaches, Katherine Estep, managing director of communications for the advocacy group Airlines for America, said to download your carrier’s mobile app to make sure you get any updates to their travel plans as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Should your flight get significantly delayed or canceled and you don’t want to travel anymore, you are entitled to a refund (should you ask for one), per U.S. Department of Transportation regulations. The catch is that each airline defines “significantly” differently, so you will have to check with your carrier to see what counts for them. You can also ask the airline to compensate you in other ways, such as paying for a hotel room for the night or a meal in the airport while you’re waiting.

In case you face delays once you’re already at the airport, make sure you pack plenty of snacks to hold you over. Most airports have not reopened all of their food options, so depending on the time of your delay, you may have limited or no options to purchase something to eat.

Besides snacks, Moyse said, travelers should pack an airport survival kit with backup phone chargers, neck pillows, reading materials, games for kids and a good sense of humor to survive long stays at the airport.

Del Monte had some advice, too.

“Get to the airport early, be prepared for a lot of hassle, and try to keep your cool, because most people are pretty freakin’ wound up,” he said.