Weather canceled your flight? Here’s one thing you must do

by Janice Hough on January 8, 2009

As we move deeper into winter, air travelers will face more weather-related cancellations and delays. In some cases, the alternatives offered by the airlines are bad enough to make us drive, take the train — or cancel the trip.

Here’s what happened to one of my clients: A seasoned traveler, he arrived into Dulles on Dec. 19 to find his flight from Washington to Burlington, Vermont canceled. And United could offer him nothing else for two days — with, of course, no guarantee that the weather would improve. Since he wanted to be home for the holidays, he decided to rent a car and make the 500 mile drive.

So far so good. But when he innocently queried me later in his vacation to see about a refund for the canceled flight, I discovered something else. United had not cancelled the flight in his record, and had canceled his return ticket.

About an hour later, after talking to a few reservation agents and explaining the situation, the ticket was reinstated. Had he showed up at the airport, however, there’s no telling if they would have fixed it in time for him to get on the flight.

The issue here is that over-worked gate agents may or may not cancel a delayed or cancelled flight out of your record, even if you tell them you are not going to wait for plan B. And while one might think that a computer would record if a flight is cancelled, this is not always the case. (The reservation agent at United I spoke to originally insisted that because the flight still showed in the computer, that my client had just decided not to take the connection.)

This kind of problem thankfully doesn’t happen with every canceled flight or flight change. But it’s best to be proactive. If possible make sure the airline knows if you make alternate arrangements, and ask them to cancel the canceled or delayed flight from your record. Or call your travel agent and have them do it. If that’s not possible, check within the next couple of days to be sure your remaining flights and ticket are intact.

And this same advice applies with a near-miss. Another client actually took both outbound flights, but a delay on the first flight meant he barely made his connection in Newark, and Continental canceled his return flights as a no-show with no notice or message until he tried to check in for his return. Fortunately, a reservation agent grudgingly rebooked him when I told her I absolutely knew his mother, a longtime client, had picked her son up at the airport.

Even if the potential problem is only with the return portion of your ticket it’s not a bad idea to check that a flight is correctly canceled, because if the airline lists you as a no-show, it decreases your chances for a future refund.

And yes, the airlines should be able to update their own records to avoid this sort of mess. But on chaotic travel days, and with reduced staffing levels, an old axiom I learned in Florida probably says it best – “When you are up to your a** in alligators, it is difficult to remember your original intention was to clean the swamp.”

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  • Frank

    So far so good. But when he innocently queried me later in his vacation to see about a refund for the canceled flight, I discovered something else. United had not cancelled the flight in his record, and had canceled his return ticket.
    ============================================================

    Your article has me wondering why this played out this way. Your friend/Client had to approach the gate counter to rebook and found out that the alternatives that were offered were NOT doable. Did he say, “I cant travel those days, I think I’ll drive.” Thus letting the agents know his reservations should cancel.

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    Actually he did, he told me he had told the gate agent there was no way he could wait that long, and there was no record him of him ever being booked on Dec 21. The weird thing was that the flight from Dulles to Burlington never showed canceled either. (I know he didnt make it up, even have the car rental receipt.)

    This has been a rough winter. I know you are in the business…my client yesterday had a record that showed PERFECT, even to the return e ticket until he tried to check in on line and it said not available at this time. It was only when I called that Continental said, well, he never got on the plane in Newark so we canceled him.

  • Frank

    On January 8th, 2009 at 8:20 pm Janice Hough said Actually he did, he told me he had told the gate agent there was no way he could wait that long, and there was no record him of him ever being booked on Dec 21. The weird thing was that the flight from Dulles to Burlington never showed canceled either. (I know he didnt make it up, even have the car rental receipt.)
    =========================================================

    So, he told the agents that he would be traveling by CAR. I’m wondering, since I’m not in Reservations anymore, whether his return was automatically canceled or someone has to manually do that. Do you know?
    Also, I’m wondering if he specifically said, “Dont cancel my RETURN.”

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    Actually, (and the reason I am continuing this on a public thread is to warn people..) his actual return flight was not cancelled. It was his electronic ticket that was suspended. So a casual look at the reservation showed everything okay, I only discovered the problem when I went to see how much he had paid for the cancelled flight. But had he gotten to the airport with a reservation but “suspended” e-ticket United would have denied him boarding. At best, he would have had to have someone call a supervisor and reinstate it, and it took me the better part of an hour on the phone. Seems like maybe it’s a two step process on checkin?

  • The man who notices things

    Here you go:

    If a flight is canceled – and you have a laptop or PDA -= make a PDF of the screen that shows the flight is canceled – AND – send it to yourself as an email.

    Second, go to Flightaware.com = enter the flight number [within a day or two is OK- but within 24hrs is better] and print out the screen where it shows there is No flight operated – you will get a screen showing all the flights for the last week with that flight number – and yours has a blank day.

    There – now you have airline webpage proof the flight was canceled and an official government record that the flight never operated. This makes it impossible for the airline to fight you..

    Next – if this is the middle part of a trip – you need to CALL the airline and VERIFY that THEIR cancellation was noted in your reservation. If the weather is bad – you may have to wait a while – make sure you 1) do not do this on a cell phone and 2) you have a speakphone function so you can wait.

    The airline systems are keyed to catch people playing the back to back and thru city fare games – where it costs $99 to go from ORD-BTV via Dulles but $800 to go from ORD – Dulles. They are not keyed to deal with the airlines own screwups – again – why? It make them money to cancel you in the middle of a trip for whatever reason they can invent.

  • Karen

    Great advice we’re in Florida up to our a**** in alligators.

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