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Yes, flights are definitely changing. No, you don’t have to live with it

Here are some strategies for combating those frustrating airline delays and cancellations

Passengers waited to check in for a Southwest Airlines flight at the Portland Jetport in Portland, Maine, on Oct. 13. On that day, Southwest Airlines appeared to be fixing problems that caused the cancellation of nearly 2,400 flights over the previous three days.
Passengers waited to check in for a Southwest Airlines flight at the Portland Jetport in Portland, Maine, on Oct. 13. On that day, Southwest Airlines appeared to be fixing problems that caused the cancellation of nearly 2,400 flights over the previous three days.Robert F. Bukaty/AP

In August, en route to Costa Rica from Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Eileen W. Cho was greeted with unexpected news. “When I was checking in at the kiosk to check my bags, it asked how many days I was going to be in Costa Rica,” said Cho, 29, a photo editor in Paris. “Then I noticed that I didn’t have a return flight.”

Neither Delta Airlines nor Air France had told Cho that they had canceled her return flight — an occurrence that could have derailed her completely. “I wouldn’t have been let into Costa Rica if I didn’t have return flights,” she said.

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According to the website FlightAware, which tracks scheduled flights, airline delays, and cancellations, flight changes like Cho’s are more common now than they were before the pandemic.

FlightAware reports that in August Southwest Airlines scheduled 106,171 flights, of which 3.2 percent (3,433) were canceled and 30 percent (30,773) were delayed. In the same month, American Airlines canceled 4.2 percent, or 3,372, of its 79,422 flights and delayed 23.7 percent, or 18,015. Delta Airlines had the third-most delays with 14.6 percent of its 75,010 flights, or 10,908 delayed, though it canceled only .2 percent: 120 flights.

Those numbers were significantly higher than August 2019, when Southwest Airlines delayed just 16.4 percent of its flights and canceled only 1.3 percent. At American, the percentage of flights canceled last August was half this summer’s number, at 2.1 percent. Delta canceled a slightly higher percentage of flights that month, .3 percent and delayed 11 percent.

And, rather than adding flights, airlines have been cutting them. In July, American Airlines eliminated 950 flights — approximately 1 percent of its planned departures for the first half of the month. A month later, Southwest Airlines said it would cut its fall schedule, operating 27 fewer daily flights for the month of September and 162 fewer for the month of October. In addition to these expected cuts in service, Southwest abruptly canceled more than 1,800 flights between Oct. 8 and Oct. 10 without significant explanation, stranding travelers.

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Southwest Airlines declined to comment on these numbers, and, in reference to the mid-October cancelations, posted a media response acknowledging “90 system-wide cancellations out of the airline’s almost 3,300 flights scheduled for the day.” “We’ve built a reputation around safe, reliable, friendly air travel, delivered with legendary Southwest Hospitality, and we’re sorry to anyone whose experience did not reflect that over the past several days,” the issued statement read.

In reference to their August cancelations, a spokeswoman for American Airlines said over e-mail, “Our August cancels were primarily related to weather/Air Traffic Control. In fact, August weather/Air Traffic Control cancels were more than 3 times what we saw in July,” attributable, she said, to “severe and prolonged weather at our largest hub, DFW.”

A response from the spokesman for Delta Airlines cited the latest official industry statistics in the US Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer report, which placed the airline near the top of categories like cancellation rates, on-time arrivals, and baggage handling.

In a September filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, United Airlines said that because it expects third quarter 2021 demand to be down 28 percent from the same quarter in 2019, it would be adjusting its number of flights “to better match the changes in demand”— meaning fewer flights and, potentially, more abrupt changes. Here are three strategies for combating them.

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Upgrade your fare

Andrew Hickey, 41, was scheduled to travel between Newark, N.J., and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in September on a refundable fare booked with American Airlines when he received notice that both the departure time and airport had been changed. Hickey, the senior public relations manager at Scott’s Cheap Flights, now faced a red-eye and a commute to an airport farther away, in New York.

Upon learning over e-mail of the drastic change in location and scheduling, Hickey reached out directly to the airline. “They were quick to cancel and refund me,” he said. His money arrived in his bank account less than a week later.

Booking a more expensive, refundable fare can save you a headache, as it did for Hickey. And some non-refundable fares are now more affordable than they were two years ago. According to the economist Adit Damodaran of Hopper, a website that analyzes flight prices, refundable fares on the route between Boston and London now cost only 18 percent more on average than non-refundable fares — down from 44 percent more in 2019. (That translates to a difference of about $259 between 2019 and 2021.)

The cost of refundable domestic fares is similar to what it was in 2019. Fares between Boston and Los Angeles, for instance, average 50 percent more than non-refundable fares, compared to 46 percent more in 2019. That difference, Damodaran said, is negligible. “Domestic airfare is actually cheaper than 2019 levels,” he said over e-mail. The refundable flight would cost $165 more than non-refundable — where flights averaged $344 in August — as opposed to $163 more two years ago, a difference of just $2.

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Ask for more

In June, Nicole Slaughter Graham, 25, a Florida-based journalist and editor, was set to take a carefully planned trip on Southwest Airlines from Tampa to Portland, Ore. Just before her trip, Graham received a change notification, which added an additional layover and delayed her arrival time by hours. “My friend and I had dinner plans for my arrival that had to be canceled,” she said. “At one point, I thought I was going to have to stay at the airport overnight.” Feeling overwhelmed, Graham accepted the new itinerary without complaint.

She didn’t know, she said, that the Department of Transportation requires airlines to offer refunds in some cases. According to the department’s website, “a passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.”

The definition of “significant change” is left to individual carriers. For Delta Airlines, for instance, significant changes are defined as those exceeding 120 minutes, while Southwest Airlines’ contract of carriage states that canceled flights may either be rescheduled or refunded, and that the airline “will take reasonable steps to transport passengers” in the event of diverted flights, though it posts no timeframe.

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But most changes that result in new layovers or that deeply inconvenience travelers are covered by the Department of Transportation, and citing this policy to carriers on the phone can result in an immediate refund, which could spare travelers like Graham the inconvenience.

File a complaint

Travelers can also go directly to the Department of Transportation for help, by filing a complaint online — or even at the airport. The Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection handles consumer complaints, and a spokeswoman for the US Department of Transportation said in an e-mail that it expects carriers to honor “reasonable interpretations in implementing their refund obligations.” Failure on the part of carriers to respond to complaints within 30 days can result in investigations and civil penalties.

Travelers have other recourse, too. “If you have elite status, there may be a dedicated line for you to call with shorter wait times,” said Melanie Lieberman, 30, senior travel editor for The Points Guy. Lieberman also suggested reaching out to airlines on social media. “Twitter, in particular, seems to be especially helpful,” she noted.

Those calling to resolve travel complications should come equipped, Lieberman said. “Keep your record-locator, flight number, and frequent flyer number handy,” she said. Asking about nearby-but-alternate destinations and alternate times, she added, can also expedite the process.

Timing phone calls to airlines may also be useful in negotiating long telephone queues. In limbo at the airport, Cho was on hold with a carrier for 90 minutes before changing tactics. “I decided to bypass the system and call Air France headquarters in New York,” she said, taking advantage of the time difference. “I got to an actual human operator fairly quickly.”

Cho’s self-advocacy helped; she made it back to Costa Rica and back again without incident.