What does an airline owe you if your flight is canceled?
Nearly half (47%) of Americans plan to travel for Thanksgiving or Christmas, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and close to half of those (46%) will be flying -- a steady increase from 33% in 2020 and 40% in 2021.
No carrier is immune to delays and cancellations, especially during peak travel seasons, but some have better records than others.
This month the US Department of Transportation announced that Frontier Airlines was one of six carriers -- and the only domestic one -- that would have to repay customers more than $600 million for flights that were delayed or canceled dating back to March 2020.
Low-cost carriers have tighter margins with less slack, so, broadly speaking, you're more likely to face a delay, according to David Slotnick, senior aviation reporter for The Points Guy. (Like CNET, The Points Guy is owned by Red Ventures.).
Of the top 10 domestic airlines, Allegiant, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines had the worst records for on-time flights, based on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' report for August 2022, the most recent data available.
At the top of the list, with the best record, was Delta, which had an 83% on-time arrival rate.
But going big is no guarantee, either: American, the largest airline in the US, and United, the third largest, had the worst records when it came to cancellations.
Delta Air Lines
The Department of Transportation doesn't have more current data but, according to FlightAware, American Airlines reported zero cancellations on Nov. 14 with a 22% delay rate, the worst of the top US carriers.
Other top carriers' delay rates. (FlightAware did not have data for Alaskan, Allegiant, Hawaiian, Spirit or Southwest Airlines.)
The U.S. Department of Transportation has launched an Aviation Consumer Protection website that lets fliers know what they're entitled to when their flight is significantly delayed or canceled outright. The site's dashboard compares policies regarding rebooking, vouchers and complimentary ground transportation for major carriers.
In the US, if a flight is canceled because of something that is the airline's fault -- a mechanical issue or a staffing shortage -- the carrier is required to get you on another flight or refund your ticket.
"If you get canceled for any reason -- you don't take your flight -- they have to offer you a cash refund," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NPR in September when the dashboard was unveiled. "If you'd rather take miles or a different flight, fine. But that's up to you, not them. They've got to give you a refund. That's a basic rule."
The Department of Transportation's website mandates airlines must also refund the cost of your ticket after a schedule change or significant delay, but the agency hasn't really defined what constitutes a "significant" delay.
"Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors -- including the length of the delay, the length of the flight and your particular circumstances," according to the DOT website, and is determined "on a case-by-case basis."
If you don't request a refund, the airline is responsible for getting you to your destination on the next available flight. Time is of the essence, though, so be proactive.
"A lot of the time you can reschedule yourself on the flight of your choice" using the airline's app, said Slotnick. "It'll save you a lot of time and aggravation."
If that's not possible, call the airline. Even if you get sent to an automated system, it may have a call-back function. You can still call if you're already at the airport. Do it while you're in line to talk to an agent and take whichever option is available first.
But it could be much later than your original flight. Under most circumstances, carriers should provide vouchers for meals and hotels. Make your plans quickly: Airport hotels fill up quickly amid widespread delays and cancellations.
Some airlines will work to get you on another flight with a different airline, Slotnick added, but not every airline has relationships with other carriers.
While few carriers will offer meal or hotel vouchers in cases of inclement weather, some will issue weather waivers allowing passengers to rebook flights without penalty. There's typically a deadline by which the flight must be rebooked
To check about weather conditions along your route, visit your airline's travel alerts site. (It's also a good place to find out about airport issues, coronavirus travel guidelines and other advisories). Here are the travel advisory pages for:
In instances where the airline isn't providing vouchers, travel insurance can be a lifesaver: The payout may not cover all of your expenses, but it will definitely be more than the cost of a policy, typically 5% to 10% of your trip cost.
Extreme weather and overly optimistic schedules have fueled the number of flights not making it to their destinations on time. But the biggest factor has how incredibly short-staffed the airlines are. When the pandemic started, many carriers bought out employees' contracts and encouraged older pilots to take early retirement.
From December 2019 to December 2020, the airline industry workforce shrank by at least 114,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Airlines are clamoring to staff up again, but they're finding it hard to fill trained positions. The shortages extend to ground staff, baggage handlers, gate personnel and other workers, FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs told CNET. "They did a lot of buyouts during the pandemic. It's a remarkable growth period and they're just back-footed."
It's particularly acute with pilots, though, because it can take five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to train someone to fly a commercial airplane.
"Most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren't enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a quarterly earnings call back in April, NBC News reported.
The airlines are as frustrated as passengers about the situation and are scrambling to improve their track records through a variety of initiatives.
All the airlines on hiring binges, Slotnick said. "They're rushing to hire pilots and deploy them."
Some carriers are also trying to improve working conditions to retain existing staff: In April, Delta announced it would start paying flight attendants during boarding, rather than just once the plane door closes. The move, a first for a major US airline, is seen as an effort to stave off unionization efforts.
"Even a year before the pandemic, airlines were trying to be proactive about informing passengers, even 24 or 48 hours in advance of a possible cancellation," Slotnick said.
United, Delta and other carriers are offering travel waivers to passengers willing to move their flights out of busy time periods. They'll waive flight-change fees and some are even foregoing the difference in price.
For more travel tips, learn tips to reducing the chances of your flight going off-track and find out about the upcoming deadline for getting a Real ID.