IIf you’ve had a bad flight experience this summer, know that you’re not alone.
More than 5,800 complaints against airlines were filed last June — a nearly 270 percent increase from the same month in 2019, according to new figures from the Department of Transportation (DOT). As analysts predicted, airlines faced staff shortages, weather problems and pent-up demand for getaway vacations, leading to a spike in cancellations and delays.
Help is on the way. On Wednesday, several major U.S. airlines — including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines — updated their customer service agreements, pledging to pay for passengers’ meals and hotel accommodations if flights are delayed or canceled due to factors under their control (which excludes time). JetBlue, for example, has announced it will provide $12 meal vouchers, and United will give meal vouchers for the “reasonable price of food at airport food vendors.”
The timing couldn’t be better: About 12.7 million people are expected to fly out of U.S. airports between Thursday and Monday, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking app.
“We’re still seeing huge demand for travel, as we have all summer,” said Haley Berg, chief economist at Hopper, a travel booking app. “Despite cancellation rates as high as 10% and delay rates above 30% on certain days, passengers have shown they are resilient.”
What to do if your flight is delayed or cancelled
The DOT urges passengers experiencing a problem with air travel to first contact their airline or visit a customer service representative at the airport who may be able to arrange food and hotel accommodations for stranded passengers, compensate those who have inadvertently been bumped from their flight, and help with luggage issues. However, travelers should remember that they are not entitled to compensation from airlines if their flight is delayed or canceled due to factors beyond the airlines’ control, such as weather, although some airlines may provide vouchers for meals or hotel rooms if asked.
For issues that remain unresolved at the airport, passengers can file a formal complaint with the airline by emailing them or filling out a complaint form on the airline’s website. Travelers can also file a complaint with the DOT directly by phone or mail. Airlines are required to acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and provide written responses within 60 days.
Approximately 29% of all complaints in June related to flight issues, including cancellations, delays or other schedule changes, while about 24% of complaints related to refunds.
What officials hope to do about travel delays
Ahead of the Labor Day travel rush, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to U.S. airline executives that “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable.”
The DOT plans to publish a new online dashboard on Sept. 2 where passengers can find “easy-to-read, comparative summaries” of the various compensation packages passengers are entitled to when there are flight delays or cancellations caused by factors under control of the airline.
The DOT also proposed a number of new rules to better protect passengers, such as requiring airlines to refund passengers if their domestic flight is delayed by three hours or more or an international flight is delayed by six or more hours. Under the proposal, passengers would also be entitled to a refund if their departure or arrival airport changes, if additional connections are added or if they are downgraded. These new rules may be finalized after a 90-day comment period.
While these initiatives will greatly expand the rights of travelers, some warn that it may not be enough.
“Travelers are obviously frustrated,” says Berg. “But the real solution is to address the root causes of the disruptions by resolving all the infrastructure pieces, rather than just fixing the symptoms.”
When travel may be delayed
Although Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer — and therefore the busiest travel season — flight disruptions are likely to continue until airline schedules return to full capacity and staffing returns to pre-pandemic levels, says Berg. This could be a while.
Airlines are operating at or below 95% of the capacity they flew in 2019 as they recover from losses due to the pandemic, staff shortages and high fuel prices. A number of carriers, including Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, have significantly altered the number of flights to avoid massive disruptions.
But historically, Berg says, travel tends to be easier in the fall months between September and November. “We hope that although the disruption rate is likely to be higher than previous years, there should be less disruption overall in the coming months.”
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