Airline Nightmare: Which Flight Will Take Off First?

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"Passengers with existing reservations for flights will not be bumped for passengers from canceled flights. We will accommodate passengers from canceled flights as quickly as possible," said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran, which cancelled 57 flights Monday.

"If today is normal departure day, you are going to go first," said Anne Banas, executive editor of travel website SmarterTravel. "If you have a confirmed ticket, they are not going to bump you for somebody who has a canceled flight, even if they have been waiting for two days."

Virgin America has a similar policy, said spokeswoman Abby Lunardini.

"In an effort to get as many folks where they need to go as efficiently as possible, we are keeping unaffected scheduled flights on track and then reaccommodating canceled flight guests accordingly," she said.

The airlines can also sometimes bring in larger jets to accommodate more travelers. AirTran spokesman White said that is one option his airline is considering. But since this is one of the busiest travel weeks of the year and airlines are leaving fewer and fewer seats vacant, it could be days until stranded passengers make it home. Most of the airlines are also waiving their change fees as they try to get passengers with flexible schedules to fly later on.

So who does get those few empty seats when they become available? One determinant is elite status in a frequent flier program, and then the price paid for a ticket.

"First class passengers will get priority over passengers who paid next to nothing," Hobica said. "They definitely take care of their top fliers."

Policy varies from airline to airline, but generally the airlines will try to consider when passengers were originally scheduled to depart.

They are boarded based on how long they have waited; trying to get those onboard who have waited the longest," said John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, which is trying to resume canceled London-bound flights from New York, Washington, Boston and Baltimore.

Banas recommends that travelers keep trying to call their airlines directly.

"If you can call the airline directly on your cell phone, you can often get ahead of those waiting in line at the airport," she said.

That said, sometimes just being there, at the airport, live and in person, can help.

"Rebooking possibilities will vary depending on one's itinerary," said Christen David, a Continental spokeswoman. "Once flights resume at a particular city, travelers who are at an airport may be able to access a seat on a standby basis well before their confirmed flight."

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