Travelers wait to check in inside the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California, US, on Monday, June 13, 2022. Credit - David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images
The summer vacation is back — if you can get there, that is. As resurgent demand for air travel collides with a severe staffing shortage in the aviation industry, delayed and canceled flights are rippling through the system. Add in the normal seasonal turbulence of summer thunderstorms and a pilot shortage that predated the pandemic, and you have a recipe for disaster.
On average, about 3% of U.S. flights have been canceled year-to-date, according to flight-tracking firm FlightAware. On Memorial Day weekend, about 5% of scheduled U.S. flights were canceled, and 26% were delayed. On Juneteenth weekend, 6% of flights were canceled, according to Kathleen Bangs, spokesperson at FlightAware.
As the summer travel season heats up, it’s becoming harder for airlines to keep up with demand from travelers making up for lost time during the pandemic. The Transportation Security Administration has screened at least 2 million passengers a day since the beginning of June, and traffic at some U.S. some airports has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
If you’re planning on flying anywhere for the Fourth of July or later in the summer, here’s what you need to know.
How to avoid getting stuck in the first place
Your best chance to prevent—or at least mitigate—disruption to your travel plans comes when you book your trip.
If you absolutely have to be somewhere by a certain time this summer, leave a day early. “If your arrival time to your destination is time-sensitive, you should probably plan an extra day as a cushion,” says Paul Hudson, president of advocacy group FlyersRights.org.
While airlines are more lenient about flight changes than they were pre-pandemic, the rising cost of airfare might make a bottom-tier economy-class ticket look tempting. But these tickets are the ones most likely to come saddled with restrictions.
If you can, avoid picking an airline that only has a single flight to your destination—or doesn’t have daily flights at all, as is the case with many ultra-low-fare airlines. These low-fare carriers are also less likely than their legacy counterparts to have reciprocal agreements with other airlines to accommodate stranded passengers.
Booking the earliest flight you can could help you avoid some of the chaos. Delays trigger a chain reaction that cascades through the system, so afternoon and evening flights are more likely to take off late or be canceled outright.
“Fly earlier in the day if possible because delays stack up throughout the day and there are fewer options as the day passes,” says Gary Leff, author of Viewfromthewing.com, a site dedicated to travel deals and loyalty programs.
Take a direct rather than a connecting flight if possible. If you have to book a connecting flight, give yourself a longer layover than usual. Leff suggests an hour, at minimum. And stick to carry-on luggage. If you have to switch flights, at least you’ll have something to wear after you land.
What to do if your flight is delayed
If your trip is stuck in a literal and figurative holding pattern, check the forecast. “People stay very oblivious to the weather. Look at what the weather is going to be,” Bangs says.
If there are storms rolling into your plane’s previous stopping point, check the status of the aircraft. If you’re flying out of Chicago, for instance, and you see that your plane is still on the ground in Atlanta 20 minutes before your scheduled departure, you have a shrinking window of time to implement a Plan B.
If your trip isn’t urgent, the path of least resistance is to rebook yourself for that airline’s first flight to your destination the following day. If potentially disruptive weather is in the forecast, most airlines proactively offer travelers the chance to rebook without penalty.
What to do if your flight is canceled
If you have an ironclad obligation, book a backup ticket. “You can’t do it on the same airline, but you can make a reservation on your preferred airline and on ‘Airline B,’ buy a refundable ticket,” Hudson says.
Yes, it’s not a perfect solution — if your preferred flight takes off without a hitch, you could find yourself shouldering the cost of both tickets until your refund is processed.
But if the flight you planned to take is canceled, you can still get where you need to go and get reimbursed for the canceled flight. If you use your back-up ticket to get to your destination, though, remember to cancel your original outbound flight in case it does eventually take off. If you’re documented as a no-show, it’s probable that the airline will cancel your return ticket.
What to do if you’re already at the airport
Waiting in line—or on hold—to speak with a customer service representative is fine, but you also should use that time to try rebooking your flight yourself via the airline’s website or app. If you wait until you can speak with a real person, any available seats on the next flight—or the one after that—might already have been snapped up.
“The challenge is when things go wrong is getting help, because there may not be adequate staffing to help you, and then with planes generally full, there usually aren’t a lot of flight options to get accommodated on,” Leff says. “Don’t always be at the mercy of the airline.”
Hudson also suggests his organization’s hotline which he says can provide stranded travelers with additional customer service contacts at airlines that aren’t publicly available.
Do airlines have to compensate you for canceled flights?
In some cases, airlines are required by law to refund travelers, but there are some caveats, and you have to be willing to advocate for yourself.
If an airline cancels your flight and you don’t want whatever rebooking option they offer you, the TSA is unambiguous: You can and should get your money refunded to you. Airlines might offer you a voucher, but you don’t have to accept it.
But you might need to be persistent, Hudson warns.
“There’s been tremendous issues about refunds,” he says, citing Department of Transportation data that shows refund-related complaints soared from 321 in the first quarter of 2019 to 5,684 during the same time period in 2022, a roughly 17-fold leap. “There’s obviously a big problem there,” Hudson says.
When it comes to delays, things can get trickier. That’s because the TSA says travelers are entitled to a refund if the airline implements a “significant” delay or schedule change—but it doesn’t define the exact parameters of what “significant” constitutes.
Policies vary, but in general, you’re more likely to have success getting compensated for meals and a place to stay if you’re stranded overnight as the result of an airline-related issue like a crew shortage. European airlines are more generous thanks to the E.U.’s Flight Compensation Regulation. If you’re stuck because of bad weather, though, domestic carriers generally don’t provide you with a hotel room or meal vouchers.
“But it never hurts to ask,” Bangs says. “Be polite and see what you can get.”