Trapped at the Airport: What to Do

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

Stay calm, be polite: passengers who treat airline reps with courtesy have a much better chance of a happy ending.

Talk to the right people: gate agents and VIP club reps are often more responsive than ticket-counter agents (and try the VIP reps even if you're not a member).

European fliers: you may be covered by the European Union's passenger bill of rights. Review it before you fly.

Have a back-up plan: If the worst happens, and your airline is not helpful, use your favorite travel tool to create a list of alternate flight schedules; also put together a list of hotels near your connecting and destination airports (along with the local numbers) and a list of rental car agencies and numbers.

Call hotels directly: Don't be fooled by Web sites that say a hotel is sold out; many set aside as much as 50 percent of their rooms for walk-up customers. Call the hotel's local number (request it from the chain's "800" or from the hotel's individual Web site).

Pre-emptive strike: If you absolutely must make that meeting, check out the airlines with the most flights to your destination before you go to the airport; you may want to head directly to that airline's terminal the moment you find out your flight is cancelled or delayed.

Stuck on the tarmac? Call the press: A passenger at Dallas-Ft. Worth airport was stuck on the tarmac recently; rather than demanding to get off (which rarely, if ever, works) he simply called a local media outlet and was soon on the air (reporters love stuck-on-the-tarmac stories); magically, the passengers were soon allowed to deplane.

As they say, the more you know, the better off you'll be. And if you fly often enough, chances are you will be delayed or see your flight cancelled. If you know your rights, you'll be way ahead of most everyone else.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.