WASHINGTON — In the year that followed the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic, people across the country were thrilled to finally get out of the house and share meaningful moments with loved ones in person again.
Although, no matter how meticulously planned, if you have to take a plane, any travel itinerary can quickly be hampered by just one or two words: delayed or canceled.
It’s a story we’ve seen time and time again throughout the year, often featuring a handful of corporate excuses and thousands of steaming, stranded travelers.
In June, American Airlines canceled hundreds of flights, blaming staffing shortages. Also in June, technical issues led Southwest Airlines to cancel thousands of flights over multiple days. In August, Spirit Airlines flyers across the country were left looking for answers after hundreds of flights had been massively delayed or outright canceled.
Come October, Southwest yet again canceled hundreds of flights following a weekend of major disruptions that it blamed on bad weather and air traffic control issues. Three straight days of canceled and delayed flights left passengers stuck from California to the East Coast. The list goes on.
What to expect as you travel this season
In the throes of a bustling holiday season that has already seen record numbers of passengers in the pandemic, WUSA9 sat down over Zoom to get advice from a Foggy Bottom-based travel expert, Director of Airline Partnerships Scott Masciarelli at Connoisseur Travel.
We asked Masciarelli how you can navigate your winter travels in a season that is supposedly famous for its weather-based cancellations, even in a non-pandemic year.
First of all, Masciarelli corrected the age-old rumor: winter, actually, is not the worst season for weather hiccups. So, you may be able to let your guard down as you plan your cold weather ventures.
“Summertime is actually more volatile, in my experience than wintertime,” Masciarelli said, blaming the onslaught of summer thunderstorms. “Of course, a big ice storm is an issue [in the winter], but the erratic weather seems to happen in the summer.”
According to the National Weather Service, the Washington Metro region has had more severe thunderstorm warnings than any other place in the country this year; that’s due in part to the region's mountain ranges.
Of course, weather can feel like the least of travelers’ worries with constantly evolving COVID-19 protocols and sudden announcements of airline staffing shortages. We put the question to Masciarelli: What gives with all of the issues this year? And are the upsets expected to continue into the holiday season and beyond?
“The airlines are probably no different than any other industry where COVID came and there were lots of reductions in service. Then, it was equally as much of a challenge to be able to ramp up again; to provide full service, and [travel rebounded] quick,” he said.
“I think some airlines have done better in planning for the return than others have. I'm probably more optimistic for this holiday season that things are gonna be better than what we've seen in the last few months.”
Tips to prevent setbacks in travel
Although Masciarelli’s predictions are positive moving forward, is there any way to be proactive when it comes to ensuring your itinerary invites fewer hiccups?
Firstly, although a travel agent himself, Masciarelli said choosing a trusted agency to work with can certainly provide peace of mind for the weary traveler. Although many think of travel agents only when it comes to business travel or an elaborate honeymoon, Masciarelli says there are tried-and-true benefits to enlisting a travel agent during a time when flights, mandates and everything in between is constantly shifting.
“We deal with this every single day. We're professionals. And I can assure you that our customers, during the difficult periods, were not the ones standing in line,” he shared, explaining that travel agents act as the liaison between you and an airline and can navigate setbacks on your behalf in the midst of trouble.
If you're in the camp that has never considered a travel agent before, you may have a few questions swirling... because, isn't that pricey?
Well, according to advice from Finance Company Nerd Wallet, it really depends. "The cost of using a travel agent is generally marginal, and oftentimes they won't charge you at all. Much of their money comes from the hotels and wholesalers they do business with. Before you consult an agent, be sure you first inquire about fees," their article reads. Of course, they still advise that it's a bit silly to book an agent if you're simply traveling from state to state to visit family.
"But there are a number of situations where employing a travel agent actually makes sense. If you're traveling internationally -- especially to a country you've never visited -- a travel agent can be an invaluable resource in helping you navigate the unfamiliar terrain."
No word on if COVID-19 times, in general, fall under the "unfamiliar terrain" category.
However, if you’d rather go it alone, there are still a few things to pay attention to when booking your trip that can help the experience be more seamless, Masciarelli said. First of all: Always read the fine print.
“When you're looking for a fare, it's so tempting to purchase the lowest price. But not all fares are equal. And it's really important to understand that.”
He explained that it’s critical to understand what your fare includes… or what it doesn't. “That figure may not be paying for your carry-on bag, for your checked bag, for your seat, for your water on board; you may end up paying [extra] for absolutely everything.”
He also recommends that you consider establishing loyalty with a particular airline in order to maximize points, benefits, deals, or credits. “That can even be through a credit card because it will allow you to board earlier, get that overhead bin space, and maybe even unlock some better fares, or better seating.”
Masciarelli also advised travelers to beware of always going with the shortest time possible when it comes to layovers - that’s when the stress of connecting can really hit its highest. Sometimes those 30 or 40 minute layovers aren’t as great as they seem, he advised. Especially if you’re landing in a busy, large and unfamiliar airport where you may have to race to your next gate.
“Flights have been incredibly full, they continue to be full, they're going to be full around the holidays. So give yourself a little bit of extra time if possible. You know, give yourself an hour, an hour and a half if you can in a connecting city.”
What your options are if you’re facing a flight cancellation or delay
There are no magic fixes, secret solutions or loopholes when it comes to how to get yourself on the plane you feel you deserve to be on - no matter how upsetting it is - Masciarelli confirmed. Mainly, he said, you’ve got to pack your flexibility and your patience. But, there are a few tips to know that might help you out if you’re feeling stranded.
First of all, know what you’re entitled to. “Contractually, the airlines are obligated to get you to your destination; it doesn't necessarily have to happen at the arrival time that you purchased the ticket for,” he said.
It’s also important to understand what your options are as a passenger when you’re flying. Masciarelli said that while some lower-cost airlines will only rebook you on their airline, other airlines have partnerships that allow them to put you on a different airline to ensure you get to your destination as quickly as possible. Make sure to read the policies and ask those questions before booking.
“There's always a trade-off when we're saving money. And you're trading off some of that flexibility,” he warned.
So, what is the airline required to do if you get stuck? It depends whether or not the issue was a “controllable delay.”
“For example, there was a mechanical problem with the aircraft. OK, that's an airline controllable delay, or something happened because of crew, a crew member got sick; that's an airline controllable delay. Then, generally, the airline is responsible,” Masciarelli explained, while adding he says generally, because some airlines, depending on the fare, might not adhere to the same policy.
“If it's something because of weather; a snowstorm, a thunderstorm, something significant, a volcano eruption, air traffic control system goes down in a certain area. Then, probably not. It's out of their control.”
The VERIFY Team also dug into what airlines are required to do when cancellations and delays run amok:
The Department of Transportation says all passengers on canceled flights are entitled to a refund, even for non-refundable tickets, should they cancel their trip as a result of the flight cancellation. Airlines may also rebook passengers on the next available flight to their destination for free or offer a voucher for future travel. Accepting either of these offers would take the place of a full refund.
However, airlines are only required to refund passengers for the flight and associated fees. That means an airline does not have to refund passengers for hotels, food vouchers, cab fares, or anything else a passenger may have reserved in advance of the trip.
U.S. federal law does not prohibit airlines from canceling flights whenever for whatever reason, so long as the airline provides passengers with a refund or credit for their tickets, or rebook the passenger.