If you had a bad experience flying this summer, know that you weren’t alone.
More than 5,800 complaints about airlines were filed last June—an increase of nearly 270% compared to the same month in 2019, according to new data from the Department of Transportation (DOT). As analysts predicted, airlines faced staffing shortages, weather issues, and pent-up demand for getaway vacations, which led to a surge in cancellations and delays.
Some help is on the way. On Wednesday, several major U.S. airlines—including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines—updated their customer service agreements by committing to pay for travelers’ meals and hotel accommodations if they delayed or canceled flights due to factors under their control (which excludes weather). JetBlue, for instance, announced it will provide $12 meal vouchers and United will give meal vouchers for the “reasonable cost of a meal at airport food vendors.”
The timing couldn’t be better: An estimated 12.7 million people are expected to fly from U.S. airports between Thursday and Monday, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking app.
“We are still seeing tremendous demand for travel like we did throughout the summer,” says Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper, a travel booking app. “Even though cancellation rates have been as high as 10% and delay rates well over 30% on particular days, travelers have shown they are resilient.”
What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled
DOT urges travelers who experience an air travel problem to first contact their airline or visit a customer service representative at the airport, who may be able to arrange meals and hotel accommodations for stranded passengers, compensate those involuntarily bumped from their flights, and help with baggage issues. Travelers should remember, though, that they are not entitled to any compensation from airlines if their flight is delayed or canceled due to factors outside of an airlines’ control, such as weather, though some airlines may provide vouchers for meals or a hotel room if asked.
For issues that go unresolved at the airport, travelers can file a formal complaint with the airline by sending them an email or filling out a complaint form on the airline’s website. Travelers can also file a complaint with DOT directly by phone or mail. Airlines are required to acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and to send written responses within 60 days.
Roughly 29% of all complaints in June were related to flight problems, including cancellations, delays or other schedule changes, while about 24% of complaints were related to refunds.
What officials hope to do about travel delays
Ahead of the Labor Day travel rush, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to executives of U.S. airlines that “the level of disruption Americans have experienced this summer is unacceptable.”
DOT plans to publish a new online dashboard on Sept. 2 where passengers can find “easy-to-read, comparative summary information” on the different compensation packages that passengers are entitled to when there are delays or cancellations caused by factors within the airline’s control.
DOT has also proposed a number of new rules to better protect travelers, such as a requirement for airlines to refund travelers if their domestic flight is delayed by three or more hours or international flight is delayed more by six or more hours. Under the proposal, travelers would also be eligible for a refund if the departure or arrival airport is changed, if extra connections are added, or if they were downgraded to a lower seat class. These new rules could be finalized after a 90-day comment period.
While these initiatives would significantly expand travelers’ rights, some warn it may not be enough.
“Travelers are obviously frustrated,” Berg says. “But the real solution is to tackle the root causes of the disruptions by solving all the infrastructure pieces rather than just patching the symptoms.”
When travel might slow down
Although Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer—and thus the busiest travel season— flight disruptions are likely to continue until airline schedules are back to full capacity and staffing returns to pre-pandemic levels, Berg says. That could be a while.
Airlines are operating at or below 95% of the capacity they flew in 2019 as they recover from pandemic losses, staffing shortages and the high cost of fuel. A number of carriers, including Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, have significantly modified their number of flights to avoid massive disruptions.
But historically, Berg says, travel tends to ease up during the fall months between September and November. “We are hoping that even though disruption rates will likely be higher than in previous years, overall there should be less disruption in the coming months.”
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