A fierce nor’easter blew across several states last week, cancelling thousands of flights over a few days. And for the first time in a long time we were caught up in it. The last time I missed a flight because of snow was in 2005 as I was headed out of New York to begin my life with John in Australia. That delay was a long one, but at least the airports were closed immediately, sparing me the initial trip to the airport in order to learn about the cancellation. This time we got jerked around from beginning to end as we tried to make our plane from Chicago to Detroit on January 2. I wish I’d known what to expect. And as the United States faces its coldest winter for a long time (in some places for over a century), I figure there are many more delays to come.
Air travel in the United States has been on a steady decline for years now. I forget that I've been out of the country for almost nine years sometimes. I’m definitely guilty of “back in the day” syndrome where I idealize everything that I remember about life in these United States and am constantly disappointed. Yes, there was a time where we did not pay extra for checked baggage, meals were served in first class on domestic flights and those first class passengers had access to a lounge that didn’t require a separate membership. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has only been around since 2001 and flying was, at one time, a joy instead of something I loathe and dread. There was a time when I yearned to fly instead of drive (I took my first flight at age 16 because my parents preferred long car trips when we had a family holiday). Now I have seriously considered sticking to US destinations that we can reach by car.
Our day began with optimism. We could see that the incoming equipment for our flight was going to be delayed so we called the airline (United) on their Premier 1K number and tried to suss out whether our flight too would be delayed. They had the same information we did: on time. Common sense told us they were wrong but if you aren't there when they’re ready to go you’re in trouble. So off we went to the airport with John’s parents. John noticed that the Chicago to Detroit flight after ours was already cancelled, which became interesting information as the day progressed. Our departure time changed to an hour after schedule, and then later again. We finally boarded and then waited some more. The crew didn't know what was going on, first announcing that we were just waiting for the pilot who was ten gates away. Then they told us we could get off because they were going to call in a back-up pilot and that could take some time. Then we were told we had to disembark because our pilot had been diverted to Milwaukee. Gather all your stuff. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
We sat in the gate area for about 45 minutes before they finally cancelled the flight. A swarm of passengers made their way to the service area to reschedule. We happened to be in first class that day and luckily got in the short line. You get nothing extra for being in first. We were already disappointed by the snarky demeanor of the flight attendant serving us on the plane. Now we were told there were no available seats to Detroit until three days later, which was the day John and I were scheduled to return home. Because the flight cancellation was deemed weather-related we were not offered any compensation short of a refund of our ticket. And we had to decide our new plans on the spot. John’s parents decided to take the bus to Detroit while we booked seats on the first flight home the next day. Plans to see family were ruined. We were not alone, of course, as O’Hare had the largest number of cancellations in the country that day.
Then there was the ordeal of getting our bags. Despite the fact that nobody on our flight could possibly get to Detroit by plane until the fifth, United policy is to forward all bags on the next available flight. In a process that took three hours, we had to request our bags to be found and brought to baggage claim. The lesson here is this: when travelling in the United States you have no rights when bad weather strikes. There are no laws in place to ensure you get food or a place to sleep and nothing protects you in the event of a delay. Airlines have to get you there eventually but they aren’t likely to make an effort to ensure your convenience. We checked online later in the evening and Delta had available flights to Detroit for the following day. But do you think we were offered those flights? Even as first class passengers there was no serious effort made to accommodate our plans.
So what are the lessons here?
- Get travel insurance. Usually we don’t bother with this on domestic trips. But if I ever fly again in winter, particularly to a destination where I don’t have family who can accommodate us (luckily we did this time), I will definitely be purchasing insurance. Of course, weather delays happen even in the warmer months. Our trip to Maine in August got off to a terrible start when heavy rain caused us to miss our connection in Atlanta, leading to a delay of more than seven hours. At least Delta provided us with food vouchers. I remember being livid with them at that time but now after our experience with United I see that they actually provided better service in a tough situation.
- Always think about your alternate options. We were forced to come up with a new plan quickly under pressure, which was a little stressful because we were already emotional about our plans being lost. Later when we had calmed down there seemed to be many options. It would have been helpful for us to be better prepared.
- Be prepared. Always have extra supplies of things like medication and underwear when you travel. I always assume I might be stuck for three to five days somewhere. Ensure you have emergency funds or credit cards to pay for your alternate accommodations as you will not receive any money from your insurance company or the airline right away.
- Ask for what you need. You may not get it but sometimes you get lucky. It may be possible to state your case to an airline representative and make a specific request. Getting a seat on another airline’s flight, for example, may be an option but only if you ask for it.
- Be clever at the airport. If you see a flight to your destination that isn’t cancelled it may be worthwhile to head straight for that gate to try to at least get on standby. Things change by the minute in situations like weather delays where multiple airports and hundreds or thousands of flights are affected, and a flight that had no seats at one point may suddenly have some available an hour later. Multitask by getting on the phone to the airline’s service staff while simultaneously visiting the gate staff of the flight you want.
- Ask for discount vouchers. Even if the airline won’t pay for your accommodation they often have discounted rates at local hotels. Be sure to inquire about these discounts should you need them.
- It’s not just flights that get cancelled. If you’re travelling by bus, train or road you may also be subject to cancellations and delays. If you are driving yourself it’s important to pay attention to weather reports and conditions, which can deteriorate rapidly. Consider waiting out bad weather situations, especially if you are inexperienced in driving when there is ice, heavy rain or poor visibility. Hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods and blizzards are common seasonal conditions in the United States and you should always check for weather advisories before heading out on your own.
- Know how to get your money back. Airlines may have special procedures, phone numbers and web pages for initiating the refund process. It is unlikely that you’ll receive a refund in person at the airport.
- Don’t forget to cancel unused portions of your flight. If your plans change you may have segments of a multi-city itinerary that you don’t end up using. Be sure to let the airline know if you’ll be missing a flight so that they can cancel that portion. In some cases missing a flight could cancel the rest of your itinerary automatically.
- Stay calm. I’m as guilty of losing my cool as the next person but getting angry and emotional about delays rarely helps the situation. Remaining calm and polite makes it easier to think clearly and is more likely to garner sympathy from airline staff.
As an interesting final note, we saw that the return flight we would have taken on Sunday was also cancelled. So we made the right decision as we needed to be home for the start of the week. When flying in winter, keep your plans flexible and don’t go anywhere you can’t afford to be stuck.
Have your travel plans been affected due to the weather? What was your experience?