Your Rights When Flights Are Cancelled
Getting a notification that your flight has been cancelled or delayed can leave you feeling powerless and desperate—after all, the rest of your travel and vacation plans are probably built on arriving to a certain destination at a certain time. If you’re traveling on a U.S. airline within the U.S. (or at least departing from the U.S.), you do have options to get back on course for your trip, but many of them depend on knowing what to ask for and who to ask and asking quickly.
Your contractual rights
There is no U.S. federal law or regulation detailing what “rights” passengers have when a flight is cancelled. There are, however, federal regulations that apply to “bumping” passengers due to an oversold flight or extended tarmac delays.
In general, as a canceled passenger, your rights and options for compensation come from an airline’s contract of carriage (the contract you enter into when you purchase a ticket) and any relevant principles of contract law. We’ll focus on the contract of carriage.
Cancellation procedures go into effect under different circumstances, depending on the airline. Some only begin their cancellation procedures when they can't get you to your destination without a delay—defined as either a "reasonable time" or a specific amount of time, such as 90 minutes. Either way, the airline will notify you, usually via email, text, and app notification, if they are classifying your flight as delayed or cancelled.
After a cancellation, you have the contractual right to either a seat on the airline’s next available flight, or a refund for the unused portion of your original ticket plus any baggage or other fees (if a flight is canceled after you’ve already traveled on one or more legs of a multi-stop flight, they don’t have to reimburse you for those portions of your ticket). The refund is usually given in the same form the ticket was purchased (cash or credit). If you choose the refund, you’re now on your own to find and book a new flight to your destination.
If you choose to take the offered seat on the next flight, the airline will try to put you in the same class as your original ticket. If there are no available seats in that class and they must move you to a higher class, they will at no extra cost. If they must place you in a lower-class seat, they will refund you the fare difference.
Most airlines also offer various forms of assistance if they cancel your flight for a reason within their control (mechanical or equipment failure, flight crew shortage, etc.) but not necessarily when they cancel because of bad weather or some other “force majeure” factor (which are listed in the contract when you purchase a ticket).
These additional options can include:
- Allowing you to reroute yourself to an alternative nearby destination, if you know to ask for this option.
- Offering to transfer you to a carrier (or bus or train) that can get you to your destination quicker, but only at its sole discretion. This is most likely going to be on a partner airline carrier.
- Giving you meal vouchers for delays of four hours or more.
- Paying for hotel accommodation for extended delays (what qualifies as “extended” will be in the contract).
What you can do
If your flight is cancelled well in advance of departure, the airline will often rebook you and notify you by e-mail, text, or app notification. If you can find an option that works better for you, call and ask for it instead. In most cases, the agent will be happy to accommodate the request, and it often works better than calling and just asking for all options.
Always keep your cool. The customer service agent isn’t responsible for your cancelled flight. Being kind is more likely to result in a happy solution for you than being aggressive or belligerent.
If you used a travel agent to book your flight, contact them and ask them to find alternative arrangements. Most agencies have a 24/7 help line to make sure you can always reach someone.
Travel insurance might also be a help. A policy may reimburse you for any lost prepaid expenses due to a cancelation or delay, as well as costs you incur because of an extended delay, like meals, accommodations, communication, and transportation.