Dealing with delayed, canceled and overbooked flights

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 84 of the January 2008 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D., first of two parts

It was 11:35 a.m. when the Alaska Airlines gate agent intoned, “I am sorry to inform you that flight 580’s departure to San Diego has been postponed. It has been rescheduled for 1:30 p.m. Everybody may pick up a voucher for a sandwich and a drink at this desk.”

Before the rep had finished, a crowd had swarmed the desk. Where else can you get a free sandwich and free drink?

By 1 p.m. we were again gazing out over the tarmac at SeaTac Airport in Seattle. While many Alaska Airlines planes came and went, ours was nowhere to be seen.

“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen. There has been a change of gates. The plane will take off from gate C3. It is only a 10-minute walk.”

With the same, now familiar, faces we waited again. 1:30 came and went. At 2 p.m. the distinctive gong presaged another announcement.

“I am sorry. Flight 580 has been canceled. We will try to book you on another one.”

My wife, Flory, and I looked at each other wondering what we should do.

While most people queued up at the counter, I remembered that in a scenario like this, the easiest way to rebook is to call the airline’s toll-free number. Luckily, we were able to make a new reservation for the 6 p.m. departure, where two seats were still available.

As our plane soared in the air, we smiled in satisfaction. We had made it.

Strangely, we were never informed why our flight was, first, postponed and then canceled.

As we had run into similar problems before, I decided to research these predicaments, the results of which I present here.


In the following section, I discuss the causes of flight postponements and cancellations. In addition, I suggest tactics you can use to circumvent them and include, where appropriate, survival strategies.

1. Weather

While inclement regional weather can cause local delays, adverse conditions in the aircraft’s originating city and/or at its intermediate stop can have a ripple effect, upsetting schedules everywhere else, even resulting in planes’ being diverted to a different airport.

Preventive tactics

• Before making a reservation, check your destination’s climate in the guidebooks, under such headings as “Travel Planning” or “When to Go.”

Alternatively, search on the Web for (name of country) + “When to Go”; (region) + “When to Go”; (name of country) + “Travel Planning,” or (region) + “Travel Planning.” You might also visit www.

• A few weeks before departure, check the weather forecasts in all areas pertinent to your flight: your plane’s originating and connecting cities, its intermediate stops and the fly-over area. To track these forecasts — often available for the next fortnight — at both local and international destinations, go to, or

The sites and also provide seasonal travel information, such as foliage and ski reports.

Survival strategies

If the local weather is at fault, there is not much you can do. If the problem lies elsewhere, rebook or reroute your journey. (For details, see below under D and E: Rebooking.)

2. Schedule change

At times, unbeknownst to you, the carrier may make schedule changes that can create havoc with your carefully prepared itinerary.

Preventive tactics

To make sure your flight parameters have not changed, call the airline several times before your departure date or look at your reservation on the airline’s website. While carriers usually will notify you of any schedule modifications if you have left them an e-mail address or phone number, they sometimes neglect to contact you.

Survival strategies

In case of major schedule modifications, you have the right to request a different routing and/or different departure times, without incurring an increase in the ticket price.

3. Local air-traffic control problems

A paucity of overworked controllers, combined with an inordinate number of departing and arriving flights, can overtax local air-traffic control and impede the smooth flow of traffic in and out of an airport.

Preventive tactics

• Choose an off-peak departure time, when flights are less susceptible to delay.

• Since some airports are more congested than others, leave from a different but conveniently nearby one. For instance, use Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) instead of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

For more detail, go to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s websites at and, which offer tips on navigating a number of major U.S. airports and which include the locations where delays are most common.

Survival strategies


4. Connecting or intermediate-city holdup

While a holdup in an intermediate airport can be weather-related, it may be the result of your allowing insufficient time between flights.

Preventive tactics

• Since any aircraft change may lead to a missed connection, fly nonstop.

• If you have to take another flight, leave enough leeway. Although the connecting times offered on the airlines’ computers are legal, in actuality they often prove to be too short to enable an effortless transfer. This can turn out to be a major headache, especially when the plane is late.

Survival strategies


5. Poor airline management

Poor airline management is best illustrated with a few real-life examples.

We all are familiar with the long delay between a plane’s arrival at the gate and the opening of the exit door — a common occurrence on many carriers. Contrast this with the modus operandi of Southwest Airlines, whose prompt release of the exit door provides an immediate and smooth outflow of travelers.

Also, some of us may recall missing a connection when our plane, although landing in time, stopped just short of the assigned gate, which happened to be occupied by another aircraft.

Preventive tactics

When making a reservation through a carrier or travel agent, request the “on-time performance code.” This one-digit code, which only the largest U.S. airlines are required to maintain, shows how often a particular flight landed punctually (within 15 minutes) during the most recent month in which it was reported. For example, a “6” means that a flight arrived within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival between 60% and 69.9% of the time.

Take this with a grain of salt, as I had always felt that carriers were purposely overstating the flying time in order to improve their “punctuality” rating. An article in the May 29, 2007, Wall Street Journal — “Planes are faster and navigation better, but airlines are padding schedules even more as congestion worsens” by Scott McCartney — confirmed my suspicion.

While some carriers list the percentage of delayed departures on their own websites, you also can find a summary of the major U.S. airlines’ on-time performance on the website of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Office of Aviation Consumer Protection Division at Look under “Air Travel Consumer Report.”

To obtain a free single copy of the “Air Travel Consumer Report,” write to the Citizen Information Center (P.O. Box 100, Pueblo, CO 81002) or contact the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation (400 Seventh St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20590; 202/366-2220).

Survival strategies

Consider using an airline with the most consistent on-time performance.

6. Pilot shortage

Pilot shortages occur especially late in the day or at the end of the month, when pilots have flown close to their maximum flying hours for the day or month.

Preventive tactics

Take morning flights, which, due to the ripple effect, are less likely to be disrupted than the ones in the evening. Also, if your schedule permits, don’t book departures at the end of the month.

Survival strategies


7. Delayed arrival of crew at the airport

On occasion, for various reasons, some of the crew members may show up late at the departure gate, preventing the flight from taking off or delaying its departure.

Preventive tactics


Survival strategies


8. Terrorist threats even when miles away

While a terrorist attack in a connecting or arrival city will play havoc with airline schedules, even a perceived or threatened assault may induce travelers to change their travel plans. Note that insurance companies vary in their coverage of trip-cancellation insurance for perceived or actual terrorist attacks.

Preventive tactics

I wish I knew the answer to that one.

Survival strategies


9. Mechanical problems

We all have waited for a plane to push back from the gate way past its scheduled departure time. Not knowing the cause of the delay, we are happy when the pilot finally announces that a mechanical problem is being fixed.

At the same time, it leaves us uneasy as we frequently are not informed about the seriousness of the mechanical trouble. (“Is the wing ready to fall off or is it only a bulb that is burned out; will they fix it properly?”)

Preventive tactics


Survival strategies

Rebook (upon returning to the gate).


What can you do on the day before departure to ensure a smooth takeoff?

• Call to check on your flight’s status and make sure the airline has several ways of reaching you (including text messaging on your cell phone).

• Reexamine the weather forecasts of all pertinent regions.


What can you do on the day of departure to prevent any hitches in your travel plans?

1. Before leaving home. . .

• Call the carrier and talk to a live person to find out if the flight is on time.

Alternatively, use a flight-alert service, such as (or call 800/FLIGHTS), a service that was highly rated in a recent Seattle Times article.

• Check for up-to-the-minute weather and delay information at major airports across the U.S.

• Peruse the FAA website www., which provides information on air traffic and weather-related delays on a real-time basis. It also gives a historical overview from previous days. While the site uses many incomprehensible abbreviations, you’ll find an explanation of each one in a link to a glossary.

Keep in mind that in some countries and at certain airports, the fact that the plane is held up does not allow you to show up late.

Example — when we flew on Indian Airlines a number of years ago, personnel informed us that the flight on which we were supposed to travel was delayed in another city and would not arrive for at least three hours. Despite this, the reps started the check-in process (including the collection of luggage, which was put behind the counter) one hour before the officially listed departure time. Having done their duty, the gate crew left. Passengers who had inquired about the plane’s definitive departure time and who showed up late were out of luck.

2. Upon arrival at the airport. . .

• Check the departure screens.

• If your flight is canceled, rebook it either with the same carrier or a different one.


How do you go about rebooking with the same company?

1. First, ask the airline representative for instructions.

2. If those are not helpful, rebook by calling either your carrier or your travel agent, which usually gets you faster service than standing in line. On the other hand, as many passengers are already aware of this tactic, the queue at the check-in desk may be short. If it isn’t and phoning has produced no results, consider standing in line at a first-class or any other counter that has few people waiting. (I have never been reprimanded for doing this.)

3. You also may decide to go back and talk to an agent at the ticket counter and, while there, look for rebooking options at the self-service kiosks, where you may find out that you already have been reassigned. Of course, if you do this, you will have to reenter Security on your way back to the gate.

Keep in mind that, while some airlines reschedule passengers automatically, others do it on a first-come, first-served basis.

4. If the airport has a Wi-Fi connection or an Internet kiosk, make a new booking online.

5. Another strategy that I came across is to book a new, cancelable reservation with a credit card (at a much higher cost, of course). Once you have the seat, see if you can use your previously canceled reservation instead and void the credit card arrangement.

6. If possible, have someone in your party stay at the gate, where reps may broadcast solutions to your predicament, such as accommodation vouchers, new flight alternatives, etc.

7. If you happen to see that another flight to your destination is boarding or that lots of other departures toward the same city are scheduled for takeoff, ask the representative to book a seat for you.

(On several occasions, we have boarded at the last moment when we were early at the airport and found that an earlier flight was available. The gate agent didn’t award us a free seat until the last possible moment, in case somebody who had a reservation showed up late, perhaps from a connecting flight. I have seen passengers on standby also get on at the last moment.)

8. If applicable, ask for food and hotel vouchers. Also inquire about hotel transportation.

9. Reserve accommodations in your arrival city.


If many flights on your airline are canceled, ask if the agent is willing (there is no rule requiring the agent to do this) to endorse your ticket to a different carrier. This could save you a fare increase.

If you have an electronic ticket, you may first need to get it converted to a paper one, depending upon the two carriers’ computers e-compatibility. At times, this will entail a lot of running between the involved airlines’ counters, something which, unfortunately, I had to do on several occasions.

Next month, I will discuss “bumping,” compensation and more.