NEW YORK • Hurricane Sandy has left more than 16,000 flight cancellations in its wake.
Chaos at airports? Hardly.
How to handle a flight cancellation
Hurricane Sandy has made landfall in the U.S., but its effects on air travelers are being felt throughout the globe. Airlines say it will take days for them to resume service to normal levels, so your upcoming flight may be affected.
Here’s what you can do if your flight is canceled:
Don’t go to the airport.
To avoid getting stranded at the airport, check your flight’s status early the day you’re flying, and again right before you head to the airport.
If you’re already at the airport when your flight is canceled, put your legs and fingers to work. Walk over to customer service. While there, dial the customer service number. Odds are you’ll get help over the phone before reaching the front of the line. Still, in the case of Sandy, the best you might do is a cot, like those the Port Authority is promising to supply to stranded travelers.
You can try asking for assistance via Twitter. Most airlines task employees with monitoring their Twitter feed. However, for this storm, JetBlue has requested that people in need of help call the airline. Other airlines could do the same.
There are also a couple of financial basics to be aware of.
The airlines have waived change fees, typically $150, for flights delayed or canceled due to the storm. But keep in mind that airlines usually only waive this fee once. Be certain you want to change your itinerary before you lock it in. Otherwise, you’ll be out $150 if you have to make a second change. You also might pay more for a difference in the flight’s price.
If you cancel your booking altogether, the airline might offer you a voucher for a future flight. You can ask for cash instead.
Also, the airline isn’t responsible to pay for a hotel room or food if you’re stranded due to weather.
Not long ago, a powerful storm pounding the Northeast would have brought havoc to some of the nation’s busiest airports: families sleeping on cots; passengers stuck for hours on planes hoping to take off; and dinners cobbled together from near-empty vending machines.
In the aftermath of Sandy, airports from Washington to Boston are deserted. There are hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded across the U.S. and around the world, but instead of camping out inside airport terminals they are staying with friends and family or in hotels.
After years of storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, U.S. airlines have rewritten their severe weather playbooks. They’ve learned that it’s best to cancel flights early and keep the public away from airports, even if that means they’ll have a bigger backlog to deal with once conditions improve.
This allows the airlines to tell gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews to stay home, too — keeping them fresh once they’re needed again and avoiding overtime pay.
And by moving planes to airports outside of the storm’s path, airlines can protect their equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen.
These precautions make good business sense. They also help the airlines comply with new government regulations that impose steep fines for leaving passengers stuck on planes for three hours or more.
"The last few major storms created such gridlock, and such bad will with their best customers, they just had to shift their behavior," said Kate Hanni, who heads up the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights and lobbied for the three-hour rule. "The flying public would rather have their flights pre-cancelled than be sleeping in Chicago on a cot."
Departure monitors at airports across the U.S. — and around the globe — Monday and Tuesday reflected that new approach.
Los Angeles: Cancelled.
Hong Kong: Cancelled.
And the number of cancellations is likely to rise.
"It will probably take until the weekend for things to return to normal," said Rob Maruster, the chief operating officer of JetBlue Airways, which is based in New York.
Even "normal" won’t be perfect. Passengers are reporting multi-hour wait times at most airline call centers and they are likely to experience long lines once airports reopen.
JetBlue is keenly aware of what is at stake when a big storm hits. On Valentine’s Day weekend 2007, a massive snowstorm hammered the East Coast. JetBlue was late to cancel flights. Passengers were stranded on planes for hours. When the storm finally cleared, other airlines resumed flights but JetBlue’s operations were still in shambles.
Other airlines took note. Severe weather manuals were updated. Reservation systems were programmed to automatically rebook passengers when flights are canceled. And travelers now receive notifications by email, phone or text message.
"In past years, airlines would have soldiered on, trying to get their planes in the air no matter what," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. But they’ve learned that "there’s no value in news cameras showing footage of people sleeping on cots in airports."Next Page >
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