April 4, 2012 -- The tornadoes and resulting hail storms that hit Texas Tuesday grounded hundreds of flights, leaving 1,400 travelers stranded overnight.
American Airlines canceled more than 400 flights at its Dallas/Fort Worth hub today, while Southwest canceled more than 40 flights at nearby Love Field. A severe weather threat is expected to continue through Thursday and Friday, as strong and damaging storms make their way to the Southeast coast, according to the AccuWeather forecast, possibly wreaking more havoc on travel plans.
So what happens to passengers whose flights are canceled or severely delayed?
Typically, when extreme weather causes mass cancellations, an airline issues a flexible travel policy that it posts on its home page. These policies can vary from airline to airline, but they generally allow passengers to change their travel dates within a specified timeframe at no charge (a change on nonrefundable economy-class tickets is usually about $150), or allow refunds if flights are outright canceled as opposed to significantly delayed.
If you're midtrip when severe weather hits, you can typically get a refund for the unused portion of your ticket, but that's not superhelpful, as eventually you need to get home.
Even if the airline does not have a flexible travel policy in place, it is its responsibility to find you a seat on the next available flight. But with airlines flying at near capacity, especially during peak travel periods such as the upcoming Easter holiday, an empty seat may be hard to come by. If the airline cannot find a flight that meets your needs, you are entitled to a refund.
Admittedly, the flexible travel policies are most useful to travelers who have not yet begun their trip. But what about passengers who are already en route? Here are five survival strategies for when weather grounds your flight:
1. Stay away from the airport. There is very little you can accomplish at the airport that you can't accomplish from the comfort of your hotel room or home. The airport is sure to be filled with frustrated travelers, overwhelmed airline personnel and lines, lines, lines.
2. Don't call your airline unless it is absolutely necessary. You're going to hear lots of people telling you to call your airline to check your flight status. Please don't do this. In the case of a major disruption, you could be on hold for hours. If you simply need to check to see your flight status, there's this thing called the Internet. Use it.
3. Use social media. All the airlines employ a person to monitor their social media accounts, most notably Facebook and Twitter. If you tweet your problem and flight confirmation number (or post it on the airline's Facebook page), you'll very likely get a response. Generally, the airline will ask you for a bit more information about your situation and for information on how to contact you. It'll then take the conversation offline to assist you. Here's a short list of airline twitter handles that may come in handy: For American Airlines: @AmericanAir; Delta Airlines: @DeltaAssist; Frontier Airlines: @FlyFrontier; JetBlue: @JetBlue; Southwest Airlines: @SouthwestAir; United: @United.
4. Keep moving forward. Your flight to Washington, D.C., is canceled and there's little hope you'll get there in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time. But can you get to New York City? Boston? Philadelphia? If you're willing to fly to a neighboring city – and foot the bill for a rental car, bus or train ticket – you'll have more choices. Flexibility is key when you're desperate to get somewhere fast.
5. Do not check your luggage. Once you've checked your bags, your options become very limited. Travel light, and the airlines are going to be better equipped to assist you, whether it's by squeezing you into the very last seat to a neighboring city or finding you a seat on a different airline altogether. They can't, and won't, be nearly as helpful if someone needs to track down your checked luggage.