Canceled flights and omicron: How to get a refund from airlines

Airlines have blamed the surging omicron variant for sending their crews to sick leave or isolation after being identified in contact tracing. Winter weather in the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest and hub cities like Chicago and Atlanta has exacerbated the industry’s struggles, even as new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cutting isolation time in half.

Back in the summer, a chaotic travel season rife with staffing shortages, By The Way compiled a guide for what to do if your flight gets canceled and how to get a refund you are owed. Here’s a helpful reminder.

From traveling light to booking your flight directly through the airline, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind during particularly messy travel seasons. (The Washington Post)

If your flight gets canceled

But be warned: Accepting the canceled flight, getting your money back and starting from scratch may put you in a position of scrambling for a more expensive flight, if you can find one at all. Then there’s the risk that your new flight may be canceled or delayed. You may want to reschedule a new flight with the airline instead of going for the refund.

Disappointed customers should also expect long waits for refunds. Although the massive carriers are legally obligated to pay back customers, they have been inundated with requests for months, pushing the DOT to crack down on wrongful denials and investigate delays in payment. In November, following an investigation into Air Canada, the airline reached a $4.5 million settlement with DOT, saying it had provided $570 million in required refunds over the course of the pandemic.

DOT said in a September report that in the 18 months starting in January 2020, it received 124,918 consumer complaints related to air travel — more than 84 percent of which were about refunds. That compares with about 8 percent a year before the pandemic.

If your flight gets delayed

You may not know your flight is going to be rescheduled until the last minute — maybe even after you have arrived at the airport. In August, Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Airlines For America, recommended downloading your carrier’s app to get immediate updates on your flight schedule.

Should your flight get significantly delayed, you are entitled to a refund (if you ask for one), per DOT regulations. However, every airline has a different definition of “significantly.” You will have to check with your carrier to find out if you are eligible. Even if you’re not, you may be able to get compensation for the disruption. Ask the airline if you are eligible for a meal voucher or a hotel room for the night while you wait.

Don’t like the rebooked flight? “Keep an eye on backup plans,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “If your flight were to get canceled, what are flights that this airline has that would work for me and my schedule?”

Once you have picked a new flight that works for you, get on the phone with customer service and request it specifically.

“That’s going to be much more fruitful than saying, ‘My flight got canceled, what do I do?’ ” Keyes said.

If you want to be protected

There are a few things you can do to put yourself in a better position for this uncertain time of flying.

Protecting yourself starts when you book the flight. Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, recommends booking your flights with frequent flier miles.

“Most airline frequent-flier programs will actually refund your points and taxes and fees, so it’s kind of like buying a refundable ticket,” Kelly said. “They give you maximum flexibility.”

Look for nonstop flights to your destination that depart earlier in the day. You will have fewer variables to deal with, and should something go wrong, you’ll have more rerouting options than if you were departing later.

Martin Nolan, a traveler rights expert at Skyscanner, recommends booking a flight with a flexible fare that allows for a free date or destination change. He also suggests booking travel with a credit card that offers extra protections. A good credit card company will go to bat for you if you are struggling to get a rightfully owed refund.

Adit Damodaran, economist at the travel booking app Hopper, says it is wise to prepare for the worst by padding your trip with some buffer time if you’re traveling for a special event. Don’t cut your arrival too close; find a flight a day before in case there is a delay or cancellation. Hopper also has “Rebooking Protection Services,” allowing travelers to fly on another airline if there is a disruption.

Keyes strongly urges travelers to skip checking a bag.

“If you have checked a bag and then you get to the gate and your flight gets canceled or delayed, it’s going to be more difficult to get switched to a different flight,” he said. “If there’s another flight that’s leaving 15 minutes from now or 20 minutes from now, your bag is not going to make it.”

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