What happens when flights to or from the United States are cancelled?

What happens when flights to or from the United States are cancelled?

Whenever booking a flight, you might not be thinking about what happens if it’s canceled, especially with how easy booking a flight is now. The choices you make, from who to book with and how to pay, can have many different results in how much you’re protected should your trip not take off. We’ve taken some time to outline some options our US travelers have while booking flights and what you are entitled to should some bumps come up along the way.

What are your Aviation Consumer Rights?

The US Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division (or ACPD) is the authority responsible for sharing guidelines on what you are or aren’t covered for when a flight is canceled or rescheduled. While the EU outlines Air Passenger Rights for flights departing from the EU as human rights, the US links these protections with consumer rights. No worries, though, as each provides quite a bit of protection should the worst occur and your flight is canceled or interrupted. However, what measures of protection you’re provided with is determined by the original departure airport.

What happens when your flights are canceled by the airline

When you book through the airline rather than an online travel agent (or OTA), you are owed a full refund when your flight is canceled. Sometimes airlines won’t offer this option up-front, even when they know you are due a refund, and will begin by offering a voucher for future travel instead. This makes sure they keep your booking funds while ensuring future travel, sometimes at the added expense when the rebooked fare is slightly more. Always keep in mind this is not your only choice and to request a monetary refund if that is what you’d like - including any fees you paid for extra baggage or seat selections. 

FYI: Choosing to book with an OTA or directly with the airline depends on what extras you want with your booking (and a few other factors). To read up on what is the best decision for you, check out our article here.

What if my flight is significantly delayed or the route is changed?

Most of the time, an airline won’t outright cancel your flight over rebooking it with a different route or at a very different time or date than what you originally selected for. As long as your booking is made at least 7 days prior to your flight departure, you are protected if your booking is delayed or changed significantly. 

Why do we keep saying significantly when it comes to delays or cancellations? ACPD explicitly says airlines don’t need to provide refunds whenever there is a change on the itinerary, only when it is ‘significant’, which ACPD alone determines. The best thing you can do should you feel you’re owed a refund for a delay or itinerary change by the airline is to file a consumer complaint with ACPD and they will determine who is owed what.

Bottom line? If the airline cancels your flight, significantly delays, or drastically changes the schedule (ACPD determines what these last two mean), you’re owed a full refund from the airline.

What is the 24-hour rule?

One option that US travelers have that EU passengers don’t is the 24 hour rule on bookings with the airline (it is becoming more mainstream across the industry though!). Airlines are required to provide the option to either:

  1. When the air passenger pays upfront the full price of the ticket and cancels within 24 hours of the booking, they must be able to receive a full refund
  2. The passengers must be able to place a ticket on hold at the quoted price for a full 24 hours without paying the full ticket price

Since airlines are not required to offer both these options, double-check which one they offer before booking - usually, if they offer the hold option this will pop up in the booking process.

These open up your options to reserving a fare at the advertised price for at least 1 day to consider your options without investing too much money at once. This is a great option if you’re considering a few different booking options, you want to check with other travelers before making the booking permanent, or you are an impulsive buyer and a JFC fan ;)

What if my error fare has been canceled?

Error fares come up every once in a while for routes that are obviously priced much lower than typical - either due to a computer or human error. While most of the time these are honored by the airline and our members who book those error fares we share go on to have successful holidays, sometimes these fares are canceled by the airline later on.

What ACPD says about these error fares is that once you purchase and pay for the fare and you’ve waited the 24 hour refund period, airlines are required to reimburse any other reservations made under the belief the airfare is valid and will continue on as normal. This means if you book an error fare and then book a hotel room and the airline later cancels the flight, they are obligated to also refund the hotel room you invested in as well. We’d still suggest waiting two weeks after booking an error fare as a good rule of them, but if you spot an extra juicy accommodation in that time you can have this to back you up.

What other protections are out there for my booking?

Unlike the EU, there is no agency in the US that booking agents can register under like the ABTA or ATOL, which protect consumers in case a company goes insolvent. To help make sure you are protected in case you choose to book with an OTA or you are not covered in a situation like the above, we have a few recommendations whenever making a new booking:

  • Always book with a credit card - many credit card providers carry extra travel insurance for bookings made with their card, but you also have the option with any charge on a credit card to dispute it for services not rendered and get your money back. Your bank fights for you, so this is the easiest protection to pursue.
  • Purchase comprehensive travel insurance - while some basic protections are offered under credit card charges, comprehensive travel insurance will protect you under many instances of issues that come up during travel. 
    • Getting sick and needing medical care abroad, your hotel is shut down on arrival and you need to make alternative arrangements, even compensation if you’re unable to take the trip for certain reasons, extra travel insurance can cover you in these cases. 
  • Book with the airline rather than the OTA - while OTAs are often offering the best prices and tempting baggage policies, they also have fewer obligations to return your money should you not be able to take your flight. If you think you’ll need to change your travel dates or travel may not be possible, pay a little extra and book directly with the airline.

Tried all of the above, booked with the airline and feel you’re due a refund? Fortunately, the ACPD has a guide for submitting complaints on consumer experiences and takes them seriously. The ACPD took an active role in enforcing consumer protections on flights canceled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions by sending out a notice refunds were due to affected travellers. This was directly due to complaints being lodged that those who had canceled flights were not being offered a refund, so if you choose to make a complaint it can result in direct consequences.

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