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Holidays 2022 proved to be a frustrating time for thousands of travelers stranded in airports because of unprecedented Southwest Airlines flight cancellations — with over 15,000 canceled flights. Even if you weren’t one of the unfortunate folks stranded, the ordeal may have you wondering, what are you entitled to if your flight is delayed or canceled? Are you legally owed some sort of compensation for delayed flights?

In a letter from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, he reported that Southwest canceled 59% of their flights during Christmas week, mainly due to circumstances within the airline’s control. Now Southwest is trying to make things right, while also dealing with lawsuits from disgruntled travelers.

Before you book your next trip, here’s what you need to know about flight delays and cancellations, your consumer rights, and the policies of the most popular airlines.

 

1. What does it mean when your flight is delayed?

waiting at the airport terminal

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics considers any flight that does not take off within 15 minutes of its scheduled time to be delayed.

 

2. According to stats, JetBlue has the most flight delays, while Delta has the least.

Delta airplane taking off

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, here’s a snapshot of what percentage of flights got delayed for some of the most popular airlines in September 2022:

  • JetBlue 27%
  • Frontier 25%
  • Southwest 21%
  • American Airlines 19%
  • Spirit 18%
  • United 12%
  • Delta 10%

 

3. Flight delays can turn into cancellations, but there’s no set time frame.

Waiting at the airport

Delays can linger for hours and hours, but there is no set rule about when a delay turns into a cancellation. Those decisions get made on a case-by-case basis by the individual airlines. Usually, however, if it becomes clear that a flight won’t take off within the same day, it will get canceled.

 

4. Airlines must provide updates within 30 minutes of the delay (by law).

Woman at an airport stressed looking at her phone

When your flight gets delayed, the first thing you should do is try to access the most up-to-date information. Try downloading the airline’s app or speaking in person to the customer representative at the airline counter. You can also use third-party flight status websites like FlightAware.

For flights delayed for 30 minutes or more, federal law requires the airline to update all flight status displays within the airport, as well as update their website, app, and other information sources within 30 minutes.

 

When should you think about rebooking — and how?

If the delay lingers on, however, you might decide to start looking for transportation alternatives, especially if you need to make it to your destination in time for an event. The first place to check is the airline’s app or their self-service kiosk to see if they offer rebooking opportunities. If that doesn’t pan out, you can walk over to the ticketing agent to see if they can help you.

TIP: A more modern approach is to tweet or DM the airline on their social media channels. You’ll likely get a response faster than trying to call their hotline.

If you’re unable to find another flight with your carrier, then you can begin to search for flights with other airlines. But keep in mind — if there is a major weather event, there won’t be much you can do. However, if the delay stems from an airline-specific issue — as it was in the case of Southwest’s holiday week debacle — then you should certainly ask them to help you rebook with another carrier.

Assuming you can get a refund on your original ticket, you might also just choose to book an alternate flight on your own, but that could end up costing you more out of pocket. Some airlines may cover this cost, but it’s certainly not a given.

 

What should you do if a flight delay causes a missed connection?

If you miss a connecting flight because your first flight had a delay, you should be entitled to compensation. Immediately speak with a ticketing agent or get in touch with the airline directly to figure out your options.

 

 

5. You should get some sort of compensation for delayed flights.

Person looking at a flight time table

The bad news is there are no federal laws saying that an airline has to pay you compensation for delayed flights. However, each airline has a policy that offers at least some sort of compensation for long delays. This could include offering vouchers for meals or paying for ground transportation to a hotel or the actual hotel room.

With the recent Southwest situation, for example, in addition to giving ticketed passengers a full refund, passengers also received 25,000 bonus Rapid Rewards points (valued at around $300) and a personal apology from CEO Bob Jordan.

However, this was a special case that generated a lot of negative publicity, so you shouldn’t expect airlines to always be so generous. In fact, you may not get anything at all if your delay happens with some carriers.

For significant delays (a term which isn’t specifically defined …), you can try filing a claim with the DOT, and they’ll determine on a case-by-case basis if you’re entitled to a refund.

 

What airlines are not required to do:

  • Put you on another carrier’s flight.
  • Pay compensation for delayed flights beyond the cost of the canceled airline ticket and fees (though some airlines may offer to cover more than that).

Related: Here’s how to find a military discount on airline tickets.

 

6. If your flight gets canceled, they certainly owe you a full refund.

Person frustrated at airport check in desk

Unlike with delays, you are required by law to get a refund if your airline cancels your flight, regardless of the reason. Of course, you might opt to get rebooked on another flight in lieu of your refund.

Flight cancellations happen a lot less often than delays (except maybe for Southwest’s very unusual situation).

To give you an idea, here’s a look at the percentage of flights that were canceled in September 2022, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics:

  • Frontier 4.17%
  • Spirit 3.55%
  • JetBlue 3.53%
  • American Airlines 1.8%
  • SouthWest 1.76%
  • United 1.09%
  • Delta 1%

One thing to note is that not all cancellations are created equal, and that may impact what you’re entitled to as a consumer. In fact, the DOT differentiates between “controllable” delays and cancellations that are out of the airline’s control (we’ll explain more about that next).

 

7. Here’s what each airline has promised as compensation for delayed flights.

When a delay or cancellation is “controllable,” some airline carriers are more consumer-friendly than others. When an airline is somewhat at fault for a delay or cancellation, that is known as a controllable delay or cancellation. This can include delays or cancellations that are the result of insufficient crew, botched scheduling, maintenance issues, etc.

Here’s a handy-dandy chart that breaks down some of the major airlines’ policies so you can know what to expect if you experience a delayed or canceled flight. To see the policies for more airlines, check the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

(This is not to be confused with cancellations that are out of the airline’s control, such as extreme weather, air traffic, security events, or acts of God.)

Chart showing what you're owed from each airline if your flight is delayed or cancelled.

As you can see, the lower-cost airlines like Frontier and Spirit won’t offer you as much as the others if your flight gets delayed or canceled. But that might be worth it to you for the lower up-front ticket cost.

Next, we found 10 reasons it makes sense to sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Flight Delayed or Canceled? Here's What Each Airline Owes You