Travelers all across the country faced a nightmare this week when American Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights for safety inspections.
While such catastrophic failures of the air travel system can't be predicted, there are a number of steps that travelers can take to increase their odds of getting to their destination instead of spending the night on an airport cot.
First and foremost, remember to be nice.
Airline employees are dealing with a large number of unhappy travelers. The person standing on the other side of the counter from you is not personally responsible for your delay. They do have a lot of power to see if you or that next person on line gets that final empty seat on the next plane out.
There are now federal laws requiring airlines to compensate you for delays or cancellations. Each airline has its own rules and policies that are spelled out in something called the "contract of carriage." Those contracts can be found on all the major airlines' Web sites.
In the end, good planning, timely action on your part, along with the help of a friendly airline agent will increase your odds of getting out of the airport.
What to Know When Planning a Trip
It all starts when booking a flight.
Diane Chulski, vice president of Leisure Travel for Travel Solutions Inc., a travel agency in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggests using a travel agent.
She said that agents have experience with delays, know the options available to you and can often help rebook passengers on the next flight out.
That said, many travelers today like to book their own trips.
Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com and an ABCNEWS.com columnist, said the first mistake consumers make when buying tickets: They put in the home phone number in.
"They should always put their cell phone number in," he said. "Most airlines now have automated systems that will contact you if they know there is going to be a delay or cancellation."
Seaney said that information is key to not being stranded. If 300,000 people have their flight canceled, but you are one of the first 1,000 or so to try and rebook you have a much better chance of reaching your destination.
Chulski also said that passengers should add their frequent flier numbers and any other relevant information to show the airlines that you are a loyal customer.
What about the type of aircraft?
This week's disruptions have some travelers wondering if they should be avoiding the MD-80, which was grounded.
Travel experts say that is a foolhardy mistake. There is no way to tell what aircraft type might have problems a few months down the road.
"That could happen with any aircraft," Chulski said. "It's kind of luck of the draw with what happens."
That said, aircraft choice can make a difference if there is a problem with your particular plane.
"Aircraft like 737s and MD-80s are the workhorse of the fleet. There are more of them. Usually when one fails, they have one in the hangar they can replace it with," Seaney said, adding that airlines also use a lot of Embraer's 50- or 70-seat regional jets and Bombardier's Canadair regional jets. However, those smaller jets sometimes are subject to more weather delays because of their size.
Remember, the smaller the plane, the easier it is to rebook those passengers on new flights. Airlines are flying planes near capacity and airlines are much more able to accommodate 90 stranded passengers than 180.
More information about airplane types and the codes airlines use to describe them can be found at sites such as Seatguru.com.
Do Your Research
Another tip: check out the on-time performance of the flight you are thinking of booking at sites such as Flightstats.com. Some flights are habitually late. It is worth avoiding those, especially if you have a connection to make.
Speaking of connections, think long and hard about what airport you plan to switch planes at. Travelers in big cities should try for nonstop flights, even though they typically cost more.
If you must connect, choose wisely.
"If you have to connect, you should avoid certain connection cities like the plague," Seaney said.
Boston, New York and Philadelphia often have delays and are not good places to connect, Seaney said. Airports on the West Coast are great for connections, but not always practical. Minneapolis, Detroit and Chicago can be good in the summer. Seaney also recommends Nashville, Memphis and Indianapolis.
"I'd much rather connect in Atlanta than Houston or Dallas because of thunderstorms," Seaney said.
You might be tempted to buy travel insurance, but Chulski warned to read the terms carefully. Most policies have little coverage for delayed or canceled flights, she said.
Finally, when booking your flight remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight. If there are minor delays in the morning, they tend to ripple through the system becoming big delays later on. Also, if an early flight gets delayed or canceled, you have more options to catch another flight.
Before Your Flight
Chulski said that 48 hours before your flight, you should check in with the airline, see if there are any changes to your itinerary and see if there are any delays.
Make sure you have confirmed seats.
If you don't have a seat, it can be harder to get your way onto a flight. Airlines let passengers check in online 24 hours before a flight. If you don't already have seat assignments, you can usually get one at that time.
Checking in early can also help because some airlines use that part of a complicated process -- including how much you paid for your ticket -- in deciding who gets on a flight and who doesn't.
At the Airport
So you've done all the proper preparations and still your flight gets canceled.
The Department of Transportation reminds you: There is no law or regulation spelling out what the airline needs to do for you.
Hopefully, you have printed out and are carrying with you the airline's contract of carriage and know what the rules are. Another useful piece of information: a list of other flights to your destination on your airline and on other airlines.
"If you find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline to endorse your ticket to the new carrier; this could save you a fare increase," the Department of Transportation says. "Remember, however, that there is no rule requiring them to do this. If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on the first flight of theirs to your destination on which space is available, at no additional charge. If this involves a significant delay find out if another carrier has space, and ask the first airline to endorse your ticket."
The rules are different if the airline bumps you because of overcrowding. Then there is a clear set of federal regulations spelling out what they need to do.
Chulski notes that airlines usually rebook elite frequent fliers first and those who paid more for their tickets. She urges travelers to be patient and polite.
Seaney echoes those comments and also suggests that travelers seek out the VIP club representatives who are more responsive than ticket-counter agents. Try them even if you aren't a VIP.
And finally, have a list of hotels ready, in case you get stranded. Even if the 1800 number says there are no rooms, try calling the hotel directly.
At one point or another, no matter how much planning you make, you are probably going to be stranded.
"It's going to happen to you," Seaney said. "Those who aren't prepared are the ones who are going to spend two to three days at an airport."