There were over 1,350 flight cancellations in the U.S. on Saturday, led by regional carrier Republic which flies for the three largest airlines which saw 35% of flights cancel. When bad weather hits, it’s larger planes carrying more people that are usually given priority. Behind Republic were – in order – United, American, and Delta, together taking the four top spots for cancellations in the world.
By 6 a.m. eastern time on Sunday over 130 United Airlines flights had already been cancelled. That’s a combination of continued challenging conditions but also challenges recovering from disruptions. Planes are out of position. Employees are in the wrong cities, and those who made it to their destinations may have done so quite late and must receive legally-mandated minimum rest.
Bad weather is going to limit air travel. Thunderstorms can be a problem, and so can extremely high winds. But air traffic control matters, too. Systemwide throughput gets limited, and that’s the fault of our failure to modernize – a failure that no one in government takes responsibility for, and that airlines just argue needs more taxpayer subsidies into the same structure.
Compounding the inconveniences of flight delays and cancellations is that airlines are totally unprepared to handle customers when their operations face challenges. They treat weather as a customer service get out of jail free card. Since they are considered to ‘owe customers nothing’ as weather isn’t their fault, that really shows in how customers are treated. It isn’t just that airlines aren’t going to provide overnight lodging in most cases to displaced passengers, or provide meals, they don’t do nearly enough to get passengers rebooked quickly either.
Here’s the scene from United Airlines in Houston:
@united WTH is happening at the Newark Airport? Hundreds of people stranded all being told by @united employees that they can’t be helped. People waiting for help for hours to be told they’re SOL. get your shit together pic.twitter.com/mU9IRt7upW
— Richie (@Richiejricardo) September 9, 2023
Here’s United at Chicago O’Hare.
— Amanda Finnegan (@amandajfinnegan) September 9, 2023
And here’s United telling customers that even though they aren’t going to fly on Saturday, they can’t have their checked luggage bag, even when it’s mere feet away. They aren’t staffing to handle it, and can’t be bothered.
— Julie Cohn (@jbcohn) September 9, 2023
Airlines don’t staff for significant delays and cancellations, and employees that are grounded due to weather aren’t cross-trained and required to help out. In a rational world flight attendants and pilots who aren’t able to fly would be helping passengers get rebooked – they’re still employees and should be considered “on the clock” – but Sara Nelson would never.
While United cancelled more flights on Saturday than American or Delta, it wasn’t just United:
@Delta currently the line to rebook dozens of delayed flights and missed connections at Amsterdam airport. Your phone wait is over 4 hours and I’ve been told several times in 2 hours that the messaging wait is 30 minutes.
— Natalie Generalovich (@ngeneral91) September 9, 2023
And one from American Airlines:
Waited 2 and a half hours to get to the front of a customer assistance line, just for them to say that they're closed and to go to a different line, which was more packed than the first one I waited in. Like is this really how we're being treated flying with @AmericanAir pic.twitter.com/CQDFoNvEGB
— DATA | Momo Ari (@TheMomoAri) September 10, 2023
Don’t check anything in your luggage that you cannot do without. Carry on anything you’ll need if you’re forced to overnight somewhere.
I frequently suggest trying to call instead of standing in line, but phone lines will get backed up. Delta has a day of travel line with the phone number on signs at the airport. American Airlines still has foreign call center lines that speak English. Those lines don’t generally back up when there’s bad weather in the U.S. So try U.K. or Australia reservations.
You can try twitter direct message, American is the best at rebookings this way, but during major meltdowns they’ll get overloaded and become less responsive. But they do usually offer telephone callbacks (this can become overwhelmed), too.
If I think I can get where I’m going successfully, I will take an all of the above approach.
- Stand in line, if there’s no club where I can get assistance (if you have airline club lounge access, it’s usually better to get assistance there than main customer service)
- While sitting on hold with the airline’s telephone reservations
- And direct messaging what I want on twitter
- And knowing what I want because I’ve searched flights, with availability – you can see this just by searching for what tickets an airline will sell to you. And availability changes constantly, as people rebook their own flights and also cancel travel plans. So I keep busy in line refreshing availability.
But unless it’s worth killing hours in the airport on the chance of making it where I’m going same day (a high bar – the cost of delaying the trip have to be huge) I will throw in the towel. During weather events the airline isn’t going to give me a free hotel room anyway, but even if they would it’s probably not a room I’d want to sleep in. I far prefer in this circumstance to book a room myself.
- Many rewards cards, especially those from Chase but also Amex Platinum and once again even the premium Citi American AAdvantage Executive card, come with trip delay coverage that may pay for a hotel room, meals and ground transportation during overnight delays.
- Regardless, it’s a great reason to have hotel points as a backup.
It’s far more comfortable to go get a room somewhere, maybe go have a meal, rather than standing around in airports. There’s an extent to which that’s a position of privilege but my point is to make it less so by minimizing cost.