What to do when your flight is delayed (or worse)

You’re sitting, waiting for boarding to start, and you get the dreaded announcement. Your flight has been delayed by fifteen minutes, or thirty minutes, or six hours. Or, it’s been cancelled, moved to a different gate on the other side of the airport, or some other nonsense the airline seems to have cooked up to spite you personally. What do you do?

First, don’t panic.1With apologies to Douglas Adams.

You are completely within your rights to panic, of course. You’re also within your rights to get frustrated at the airline, tweet angry things at them2Tweeting at an airline mostly just reflects poorly on you, and does not get you anything, virtually ever. If you take the number of people who have tweeted at an airline, divide it by the number of people who have actually gotten what they wanted out of that interaction, and round to the nearest tenth of a percent, that number is 0.0%., blow up at a gate agent, be snippy with a flight attendant, or work yourself up so much that you instigate a petty conflict with a fellow passenger over the smell of their food.

None of these things will make the plane take off any faster. They may make your situation worse.

Instead of reacting angrily, I’d recommend responding calmly based on the information at hand. It’s a lot easier to respond instead of react if the situation doesn’t come as a surprise—luckily, delays are almost never surprises.

None of the things that can go wrong during travel are actually all that unpredictable (or, sadly, that unlikely). You can and should anticipate them. By expecting everything bad to happen sooner or later, and having good contingency plans already in place, you’ll avoid getting surprised entirely and needing to deal with the situation flat-footed.

By planning ahead, you allow yourself to avoid surprise. This is a good thing, because surprises cause panic, panic causes stress, and panic and stress not only make you feel worse, they also make it harder to make good decisions, harder to focus on actually solving the problem, and more likely that you’ll get into an argument with a stranger.  Which will make you feel worse still, which will make you more stressed out, and on, and on.

Plan ahead and save yourself the stress spiral.

What follows is a guide to what you should know and do in all four of the common unpleasant travel scenarios: a flight delay, a cancelled flight, a missed flight, and getting walked at a hotel, including some semi-insider knowledge from my time consulting for airlines and airline maintenance firms.

When Your Flight Is Delayed

The two possible courses of action for a delay are: wait it out, or get rebooked on another flight.

If your flight is likely to take off before the next one out and it’s unlikely to be delayed further, it’s normally best just to wait the delay out. If the flight is already delayed past the time that the next flight out will take off, attempt to rebook onto the next available flight as quickly as possible.

Don’t try to do this in person. Instead, call your airline’s customer service line. There will be limited seats available for passengers who want to do the same thing you’re trying to do, and all seats are given away on a first-come-first-serve basis. The phone is the fastest way to the front of this line (plus, you don’t have to stand in a line while you wait).

It starts to get tricky if your flight is likely to be delayed past the time that the next flight out will take off, or cancelled outright, but hasn’t been yet.

Waiting until the flight is actually cancelled or further delayed will make it a lot harder to get on the next flight, because you’re giving everyone who decides to jump ship before you a chance at one of the limited number of seats on that next flight.

Because of all of this, determining your best course of action requires some educated guesswork based on why the flight was delayed.

The fastest way to find out why your flight is delayed is to ask the gate agent at your gate—they’re the person most likely to know what’s going on. But, if they don’t, or what they say doesn’t seem right, or you’re not yet at the airport, there is some deduction you can do to figure out what’s most likely—is there severe weather anywhere on your route? Was the inbound flight delayed? Is it a busy flying season where system delays are more likely?

To know which, we need to know the reasons flights get delayed in the first place:

Late inbound aircraft

Late inbounds are highly predictable, and highly knowable. They’re caused by an airplane that will be used for your flight—called the inbound aircraft—getting delayed somewhere before it gets to you.3Sometimes you’ll get a situation where it’s not the plane itself but the crew that is late getting in (planes will sometimes swap crews from flight to flight). This is effectively the same thing, except it’s harder to track down. Because of that delay, it can’t land on time, so it can’t take off on time, and so-on, creating a knock-on effect down the day’s schedule. Because of this knock-on effect, late inbounds are increasingly likely as the day goes on.

You can find out where the inbound flight is on your carrier’s app in the flight details section or by looking the flight up on flightaware.com and clicking the “track inbound flight” link. As long as the airplane is already in the air and it’s not delayed because of something that might also impact you, like weather, the estimated delay is normally accurate and can be used to make a call.

If you’re already at the airport for this flight’s original departure time and it’s still on the ground somewhere else, it’s most likely that you’ll be better off switching flights.

Until that plane takes off, the delay time is not yet set-in-stone, because you have to account for an unknown amount of time on the ground before takeoff. It will be a minimum of however long it takes to fly from its current location to where you are, plus the time it takes to “turn the plane around” (deboard, clean, restock, board), but it’s possible that it’s longer, especially if its delay is caused by weather.


Speaking of weather: weather delays are bad news, because of their unpredictability and systemic effects on flight schedules. Sometimes, the weather is somewhere on your route, or at your destination airport, which means you might have a weather delay even when the sky outside is a cheery blue. Sometimes, it’s not even your flight that’s delayed by weather, but the inbound flight that will become your flight. Weather delays are almost always a total crapshoot.

The worst time for weather delays is, counterintuitively, the summer. The unpredictability and high intensity of fast developing summer storms are much harder for air traffic control to deal with than winter storms, which are normally steady, predictable, and slow-moving.

Unpredictability is also why weather delays are so tough to know what to do about—it could be fifteen minutes until conditions improve; it could be three hours. Assuming you’re not already sitting on the tarmac, it’s best to wait until the second “updated departure time,”4Why the second update and not the first? Because the first delay often a wild guess based on limited information. The first delay is simply someone saying “there’s no reasonable way this flight is getting to its destination on schedule,” which is why they’re often round, small numbers like 15, 30, or 60 minutes. The second delay is normally a more accurate guess based on real information. Of course, sometimes the guess is correct and it’s never updated. If it holds for more than an hour, it’s likely not changing without new information. and then act as if it’ll be another hour or so—with weather delays (and mechanical delays, and system delays), the departure time is often a hopeful guess based on the best case scenario of everything clearing up as quickly as possible, and each additional updated time means that’s becoming less likely.

Weather prediction services and apps with radar tracking, like Weather Underground, can help you, but only kind of. Even if you’re looking at the radar, it’s hard to tell what would be considered “unflyable” conditions and what wouldn’t. Turbulence, lightning, and high wind, all of which are tough to eyeball, are much more dangerous to planes than low visibility and heavy precipitation.

The only common-knowledge weather rule that is true at most (but not necessarily all) US airports is that any lightning strike within 5 miles of the airport will cause a 15 minute full ground stop on a timer that resets every time lightning strikes. Everything else is a game-time call made by the airlines, pilots, and/or air traffic control.

Mechanical delays

Aircraft maintenance is highly regulated and taken very seriously. Before every flight, the pilot or co-pilot is required to do a walkaround and visually inspect every critical piece of the plane, including probes and sensors, structural components, motors, and wiring. They also run tests on all of the electrical and computer components like the navigation, radio, telemetry, climate control, and emergency systems.

Some issues can be deferred for a limited amount of time, but if there’s an issue with anything on the Minimum Equipment List (an FAA-generated list of everything required for flight), that plane can’t fly until it’s fixed — this is called an AOG or aircraft-on-ground situation — and because of the heavy levels of regulation and the risk involved, maintenance staff take their time and make sure everything is done correctly. Often, in the course of fixing the first problem, they’ll discover a second adjacent problem, and then plane can’t fly until that’s fixed, too.

Because of the uncertainty involved, estimating the time a mechanical delay is going to take is just guesswork based on the best case scenario. Suffice it to say almost nothing takes less than a few hours to fix on a plane, even something that seems trivial like an overhead bin not closing. A delay of under an hour means the problem is either not fully diagnosed or they expect to get a different plane for you to take to your destination.

Because of all this, they’re best treated the same as weather delays: wait until the second “updated departure time,” add an hour, and if that’s later than the departure time for the next flight on the same route, call and rebook.

System delays

A system delay is the industry jargon for every other non-aircraft-specific delay. If you’re told there’s a system delay, it could mean that the airport has a holdup at security or in baggage, it could mean something’s going on at air traffic control, or it could just mean it’s a busy day and there’s a line to get out.

Because of this, they’re a total toss-up. Thankfully, (with the exception of computer system outages, which are easy to spot because everyone is delayed and there’s usually news about them), they’re normally minor, and not worth doing anything about but waiting. But, due to their unpredictability, they can occasionally stretch for a very long time.

Just like a weather delay and a mechanical delay, wait until they update the departure time for the second time and then assume the flight is taking off an hour or two after that, and choose to change flights (or not) accordingly.

Tarmac delays

Tarmac delays are any delay that happens after you’ve already boarded and pushed away from the gate, They’re normally either weather delays or system delays, and because you’re already on the plane, there’s not a lot you can do to pre-empt or change the situation. The only thing to do is make sure you always fly with something to read.

Illegal crew

These aren’t actually a delay type, but they are a risk worth addressing.

In every delay scenario, an “Illegal” crew is the wildcard variable that can suddenly cause a short delay to become a three hour delay or even a cancelled flight. It has to do with federal aviation laws and union contracts around how long pilots can work in a row before taking a mandated rest period: after a certain number of hours of continuous duty (including delay time), they are contractually and/or legally no longer allowed to work, and for the flight to take off, new crew needs to be found.

If a flight is delayed long enough, it’s very easy for a crew to cross that threshold and become “illegal.” It’s most likely to happen towards the end of a day, around 6 or 7PM for flights out on the east coast, and as early as 3 or 4PM from the west coast. If it seems likely that the crew could go illegal (you can ask a gate agent this, they’ll know), get another flight out as quickly as possible.

When Your Flight Is Cancelled

Like a delay, the best way to deal with a cancellation is over the phone. Everyone else is trying to get rebooked too, and every second counts. Flex that status and call your dedicated gold or platinum or double secret global diamond captain’s preferred line to talk to someone who is more interested in getting a happy outcome for you than the person dealing with a massive line at the gate or the customer service desk. Plus, you get to avoid that line.

The goal is the same no matter what caused the cancellation: to get to your destination as quickly as possible, not just to get on the next flight that can get you out—sometimes waiting in the airport another two hours for a direct flight or rerouting through a different airport will still get you home faster than taking the next possible flight period.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean flying on the carrier who you were supposed to fly on. Customer service agents at most airlines have the ability to rebook you onto a different airline’s flight at their discretion, and will do it for someone who requests firmly, with specific flight numbers and availability knowledge. If there is a flight on a different major carrier that is better for your plans, ask if they’ll re-accommodate you onto that flight. You can make sure there are tickets available by looking up the flight(s) on Google flights or similar. (Note: this trick is impossible with checked bags. Never check bags.)

You may also be eligible for some compensation or other special consideration when your flight is cancelled or delayed past a certain time, depending on your carrier’s contract of carriage. This consideration is often so paltry that it’s not even worth waiting around to get whatever they’re giving you, but here’s a handy table that summarizes the policies for five of the biggest carriers.

When You Miss Your Flight

Whether it’s because of a botched connection, traffic, an overlong security line, or just because you overslept, you will eventually miss a flight. It happens to everyone. While not a great situation, it’s not really that big of a deal.

Most major (non-budget) airlines will just re-accommodate you on a later flight without much fuss. Again, the goal is to get to your destination as quickly as possible, but you’re a little bit more subject to the whims of airline employees, because in this case you caused the need for rebooking. You don’t quite have the leverage to demand a specific flight, cross-airline re-accommodation or complicated rerouting, but it still can’t hurt to ask politely if you have a specific route or flight in mind.

Again, call as early as possible to make your new arrangements—if you’re stuck in traffic or still at the office when you realize you’re likely to miss your flight, avoid the mad sprint and just call then to get on the next one. Rebooking before you leave for the airport lets you wait out the intervening time at work or home, instead of in an airport lounge.

When You Get Walked at a Hotel

Hotels expect a certain percentage of their reservations to not show up. Because of this, they have a standard practice of selling more reservations than they actually have space for.5Airlines do this too, of course. It’s the source of the ubiquitous “we’re looking for four passengers to take a voucher in exchange for getting on a later flight” announcement I’m sure you’ve heard many times.

99%699 is a guess. I actually have no idea how often people get walked at hotels. No one publishes these kinds of stats. Suffice it to say it’s very very rare — in over a thousand nights over five years, it’s happened to me twice. of the time, their predictions are correct, the hotel walks away with several thousand dollars a night in no-show fees, and no one is the wiser. But sometimes, the math doesn’t work out the way they expected, and an unlucky patron is left with a confirmed reservation but no room. In industry parlance, this is called getting walked.

The worst part? They fill the rooms against reservations as people arrive, so it’s considerably more likely to happen very late at night, when you’re already tired and likely just dealt with a cancelled or heavily delayed flight. Fun times.

Every hotel has its own walk policy, but the standard procedure is a free night in a nearby hotel, plus transport to that hotel—here’s a good rundown of individual policies by The Points Guy. His what-to-do list is also virtually identical to my own, so I’ll just reprint his:

  1. Before being walked, politely, but assertively, push for any available room on property regardless of room type. Suggest that if there are dirty rooms you are happy to wait for housekeeping or front desk staff to clean the room.
  2. The oversold hotel should pay for your room in a close-by property of equivalent or higher service/star rating regardless of brand. Be cognizant of how many people are in your party and the room occupancy of the new hotel. If you need two rooms at the new property instead of one at the oversold original hotel, the oversold hotel should take care of it.
  3. The oversold hotel should pay for your cab/Uber ride to the new property.
  4. Ensure you will not be charged anything including a cancellation fee that may auto-post by the oversold property.
  5. Politely request the rooms manager of the oversold property contact you for a follow up explanation/discussion. I find this helps me learn why I may have been walked over other customers and they’ll typically offer some form of compensation, even if you are not elite.

I’ll add three things:

  1. As much as it may not feel like it, the compensation you get for a walk is negotiable. You don’t have to walk away until you’re satisfied, and you’re well within your rights to (politely!) make requests for specific kinds of compensation or additional consideration. Know when you’re fighting a losing battle, and stay courteous, but feel free to ask for what you feel is appropriate out of the situation, even if it’s beyond what you’re guaranteed based on the hotel’s service guarantees and your status level.
  2. As an example: insist on a compensated stay at a nearby hotel. Nearby is important — they’ll likely try to put you in a sister property (one owned by the same chain), even if there are much closer hotels with different ownership, because it saves them money. Most (not all) walk policies allow for managers to put you in any hotel. Politely tell them that six or ten miles down the road is unacceptable and you’d like to stay in the same urban center that you’re currently standing in. They can refuse, but they generally don’t, especially if you have status — they normally realize they’re the one that put you in this situation and are willing to go to some lengths to keep you as a loyal customer.
  3. Don’t bother calling corporate. As opposed to dealing with airlines, where calling the 800 number is often beneficial, a central line for the hotel will be able to help you less (and less quickly) than the manager on duty.

Stay Patient, Stay Positive

I encourage you keep a smile on your face, even when everything is terrible. I can tell you from plenty of personal experience that all of this sucks. Getting delayed sucks. Getting walked at a hotel sucks.

But remember: the person that’s tasked with fixing it didn’t cause the problem, and while taking your frustration out on them might feel good in the moment, it won’t make you happier in the long run. It will often make things worse. On the contrary, being kind and understanding can often get you what you want, and faster, simply because not being a jerk is so uncommon. 7Story time: I once had to rent a car after a horribly delayed flight into ATL. It was well after midnight, and only me and one other person from the flight went to this counter. The other guy got there first. Because it was so late, we had been counted as no-shows and our cars had been given away — standard procedure. The other guy put on his best indignant face and began fuming about the agency not checking flight statuses (I know what you’re thinking: how could they possibly do that when car rental places don’t traditionally ask what flight you’re coming in on? I was thinking the same thing.)
It took 45 seconds of fake outrage for me to realize his angle: if a rental place doesn’t have the car you reserved, the only direction their policy allows them to go is up. They have to put you in a nicer car, but how much nicer is up to the discretion of the desk agent. At a minute-thirty of outrage, his target was revealed. He reserved a Focus, but because of their “gross negligence,” he will only be made whole if he gets to drive around in a Mustang all week. The agent was having none of it, of course, and puts him in a Fiat 500. Not a bad car actually, but this guy was indignant.
So, he tries to fight it for a minute, and gets nowhere. To close the conversation with Indignant Man for good, the agent waves me up. I open by asking the agent how they’re doing (they’re a human, after all), and then as I hand them my ID, “I don’t care what you put me in. Anything you’ve got is fine.” Wouldn’t you know, Indignant Man was still standing there, attempting to get a last word in, and I suspect as a final “fuck you” to him, the agent asks me with a small grin: “would a Mustang be okay?”
Flies, honey, vinegar, that whole thing. To be clear, I’d recommend being kind for the sake of it, not because it sometimes pays to be nice, but also, sometimes it pays to be nice.

In all of the above scenarios, and any other unpleasant travel situation that might crop up, stay patient and stay positive.

A positive feedback loop is just as easy to create as a negative one, and it’s within your power to choose to create a positive one—staying patient and positive keeps you in a better mood and away from panicked decisions and lashing out, which keeps the people you’re interacting with in a better mood and away from panicked decisions, which makes you happier, more patient, and more positive, which makes them kinder and more amenable to giving you what you want. It’s a win-win.

There are practical benefits to this, too—it is very unlikely that anyone you talk to try and solve your travel problems caused the issue, but they do have a wide range of abilities and to make your life much better or much worse. A little bit of patience and positivity towards someone who has spent their entire day dealing with angry and frustrated customers because of things they cannot control pays off.

You’re going to be waiting either way, might as well do it with a smile on your face.

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