We’ve all been there as travellers, arriving to the airport only to find that our flight is first delayed then cancelled or worse your outbound flight is delayed so that you miss your connecting flight leaving you stranded at an airport perhaps thousands of miles away from home.
Most people head to the gate agent or customer service centre in the terminal to get re-accomidated often yelling at helpless agents due to them being stranded. I can understand the pain they feel but it’s neither the most civilized or efficient way to solve the problem. Travellers often don’t understand what they’re entitled to and often either ask too much (or more often) too little from the airline for their hassles. Let me let you in a few secrets from my vast experience travelling going through some of the common IRROPs situations you’ll face and how to deal with it.
Where to Go
The first thing you should think about when you’re about to encounter an IRROP is ask yourself who to appeal to. Most travellers gravitate towards speaking with the gate agent who is managing the flight. Unfortunately, those gate agents are often overworked when these IRROPs occur and often have to think not only about your flight but the next scheduled flight leaving that gate which could be as little as several minutes from your flight at a busy airport. They also may not have access to all the rebooking tools available to other representatives at the airline. Your best bet is to find the nearest customer service center which is usually a couple gates down from where you are. If you are a VIP (i.e. travelling business class or an elite frequent flyer) you’ll often have a dedicated lane for yourself which often means small queues. Even better if the airport you are at has a lounge for the airline you’re flying with and you have access to the lounge (i.e. you’re a VIP) go there since the agents there are veterans with the airline and can easily handle the rebooking. There’s also typically no waiting to get rebooked.
How Things Go Sideways
The flight delay is arguably the most common type of IRROP we all face. These delays seem to be getting increasingly more common as more and more airports gets congested due to increased passenger loads and airlines are pushing their aircraft harder to extract the remaining cents out of the proverbial pocket seat. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world you’re not entitled to any compensation and are lucky if the airline will give you a snack for your troubles. However, if the flight is taking off from the European Union or is with a carrier registered in the European Union such as Lufthansa, you could be entitled to compensation of between 250 Euros and 600 Euros for a delay of just 3 hours per EC 261/2004 - that’s in addition to the airline getting you from point A to B as promised. While there is some paperwork to fill out to make the claim, there are firmsthat will gladly handle all of this for you for a small commission of the compensation. One thing to keep in mind is that these rules are European Union specific rules, and there are many countries within Europe that are not part of the EU (i.e. Switzerland). Hence, they don’t have to compensate the same way say Lufthansa has to.
The dreaded flight cancellation is arguably one of the most severe types of IRROPs. At a minimum the airline will rebook you on the next available flight. In other words the next flight that is going to your destination that has a seat available, which could be in the next hour if it is a regularly scheduled flight and there aren’t many people on the flight to the next day, or even later in the week (highly unlikely but has happened). Generally airlines interline which means that they can book you on a flight on a rival airline if that means you’ll get to your destination the fastest. For instance, suppose you’re on the last United flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles that gets cancelled. The next available flight from United takes off in the afternoon the following day but American operates the same flight and they depart in 45 minutes. A United agent could issue you a ticket on that American flight so you can get out of San Francisco the same day. This is generally up to the discretion of the agent. Most travellers don’t explore this possibility with the agent and often leave viable alternatives on the table for other savvy travellers to pick up.
Arguably the most tricky type of IRROP is the misconnection. Suppose you are flying from Toronto to San Francisco connecting in Chicago. Your first flight, Toronto to Chicago gets delayed by over 3 hours and when you arrive in Chicago to your horror you discover that your connecting flight from Chicago to San Francisco has left. From my experience this is generally handled the same as a cancellation due to something outside the airlines control. Generally the operating carrier of the flight you misconnected with would be the most relevant person to speak to. One notable exception to this are connecting flights that are on separate itineraries. For instance if you booked one flight Toronto to Chicago on American then booked a separate flight Chicago to San Francisco on United. Since these tickets are held by different airlines and are on separate tickets they aren’t protected against misconnections and in this instance United would likely treat it like you missed your flight. This is precisely why you want to have all segments in each direction of travel be on the same ticket whenever possible as the issuing airline would have guarantee the reservation.
Types of IRROPs
When an airline has to cancel a flight due to a cause within their control (i.e. an aircraft breaks down), they will generally provide some sort of compensation above simply booking you on the next available flight. For instance, if you have to fly out the next day they’ll pay for your hotel accommodation, give you food & drink vouchers for the airport and provide transportation to/from the airport. An important exception to this rule is if you haven’t commenced flying yet. For instance suppose you have a roundtrip ticket between Toronto and San Francisco and your flight to San Francisco goes mechanical. The airline might not provide hotel, meal voucher and other compensation since they would argue you could just go home for the night (they might pay for a cab though). If you’re rebooked on a flight the same day you may be given a food & drink voucher for the airport. In addition, you also have the right to demand a full refund on the flight which may make sense in some instances. EC 261/2004 could also apply in the case that it’s a flight operating in Europe.
The second type of cancellation is caused by something outside the airlines control like bad weather. Generally speaking your entitled to the least compensation (i.e. rebooking you on the next available flight) since it wasn’t the airlines fault that this occurred. If the next available flight is the next day you’ll have to either pay for a hotel or stay overnight at the airport (if permitted). The only exception would be VIPs on the flight (i.e. passengers business class or top tier frequent flyers like Star Alliance Gold members) who are generally given the same benefits as being cancelled due to something within the airlines control (i.e. hotel, taxi and food & beverage compensation).
Tips & Tricks
Now that we’ve covered all the bases when it comes to IRROPs you’ll want to think about what to do when you encounter it. Here are some of my tips:
Check the monitors at the airport to ensure you go to the correct gate to make your connecting flight and head to the gate first
Avoid connecting flights when practical since every connection introduces the risk for a misconnection
Similarly if the airline offers to rebook you on a connecting flight in lieu of the nonstop flight - avoid it
Flights early in the day as they are less likely to get delayed as such delays would have a knock on impact on the airline’s operation
Head to customer service counters or the airline’s lounge, to avoid the long lines and overwhelmed gate agents
Check your email/airline’s app as many airlines allow you to rebook directly on your phone saving you valuable time
Search Google flights for available replacement flights suggesting the option you like to the agent
Call the airline’s reservation department since sometimes they’ll respond faster than the line you’re in
Checked bags limit your flexibility in taking a different flight or having to stay at a hotel since the airline is holding your bag up