Trapped at the Airport: What to Do

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There you are, sitting patiently at the airport, ready to head home. Suddenly, the gate agent appears at the mic. Does he look sad? Demonic? Either way, you know it's not going to be good. And then he says those dreaded words: "Flight 731 is now delayed for approximately five hours …"

You're not alone. Last summer, about one in four of us experienced delays or cancellations, and at some airports it was as bad as one in three. (New York's JFK was an incredible mess.) And – understandably — on-time arrivals dropped in 2007 compared to the year before.

The problem is when you are delayed or your flight is cancelled there's not much the airlines can do these days. And that's because they're packing their planes as never before (and in many cases packing more passengers into smaller jets); this helps them avoid "empty seat syndrome."

Empty seat syndrome is when the airline doesn't get any revenue from those empty seats but still has to spend the same amount of money on fuel. It's a double loss for the airline.

That's why so many planes these days resemble tins of sardines.

But how does this affect the delayed flier? Think about it. In the old days a missed flight meant the airline would simply put you on the next plane. But today's next plane is very likely full.

So what do you do? Three little words: Know your rights.

And that's where an airline's "contract of carriage" comes in. A contract of carriage — sometimes referred to as conditions of carriage or by other terms — is a binding agreement between you and your airline once they ding your credit card and issue you a ticket. The agreement tells you what the airline will do for you in the event of a problem. But it does not necessarily say what it won't do, so you have to read between the lines.

Example (and this is an explanation from Delta's contract of carriage, on what happens when a flight is canceled for reasons other than bad weather): "At our sole discretion, we may arrange for your travel on another carrier or via ground transportation." Note the keyword "may," as in we may arrange other travel. In other words, they don't have to. Contracts of carriage are filled with little minefields such as this so be alert.

And, as I wrote in my blog last year, when it comes to weather, the majority of airlines give themselves cover when a delay or cancellation is due to a force majeure … this can include weather, political unrest, unexpected flight safety shortcomings, and even other facts not foreseen. The airlines allow themselves a lot of wriggle room.

So here's what you do:

Make a copy of your airline's contract of carriage; bring it with you.

Okay, you don't have to copy to entire contract (Delta's runs 56 pages) but do make copies of the sections relating to being bumped as well as delays and cancellations (and these may be referred to in multiple sections; copy them all).

Be sure the copy is on you or in your carry-on luggage. A copy of the contact can be found on most airlines' Web sites.

What else can you do? Read and heed the following:

Rick's Emergency Kit

Review your airline ticket's contract of carriage: especially the section on bumping, delays and cancellations. Keep a copy of those sections with you.

Use technology: sign up for airline "alerts" for quick notification of delays or cancellations. Today's packed planes mean, the sooner you act, the more likely you are to find an alternative flight

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