For many air travelers, summer was a bummer.
A high rate of flight cancellations and delays resulted in missed weddings, shortened vacations and expensive hotel and meal bills in strange cities. The situation was so bad, and so prominently featured in national news reports on busy weekends like July 4, that federal officials talked about whether to hold airlines financially accountable for the cost of delayed travel.
Hotel bills, meals, ground transportation bills can sometimes run into the thousands, but here’s the good news: those costs now fall much less on passengers than it did before.
Government pressure worked
Airlines now offer far more than they did to stranded travelers, and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) this month launched a customer service dashboard that lists what services the 10 largest airlines provide when a flight is canceled for reasons within the airline’s control.
No airline unconditionally guaranteed meal vouchers or hotels before DOT announced plans for the dashboard. Now, nine of the 10 airlines on the dashboard guarantee meals, while eight of the 10 now guarantee hotel accommodations when an airline issue causes the delay or cancellation.
“This dashboard collects information in one place so travelers can easily understand their rights, compare airline practices, and make informed decisions. The department will continue to support passengers and to hold airlines responsible for adhering to their customer obligations,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this month when the dashboard was launched.
Air travel surges
Summer air travel this year surged to levels higher even than the summer of 2019, the last before the COVID-19 pandemic ground most air travel to a halt.
Complaints to DOT this year have jumped to more than three times what they were in 2019.
Airlines this year have canceled about 146,000 flights, or 2.6 percent of all flights, while nearly 1.3 million flights have been delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware. The rate of cancellations is up about one third from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, and the rate of delays is up nearly one fourth.
Airlines are responsible for cancellations stemming from maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading and fueling. They are required to adhere to the promises that they make in their customer service plans, including commitments to care for customers in the event of controllable delays or cancellations.
Dashboard still not widely known
If the government’s dashboard is a handy reference for travelers, it’s still not widely known.
“It can’t hurt. The more information, the better,” said Bob Thompson, owner of Ambassador Travel outside Pittsburgh, who had not heard of the dashboard.
Thompson often helps clients book complicated high-end travel to Europe, where delays and cancellations were notable this summer.
While Pittsburgh travelers can fly directly to London, those headed for other parts of Europe must board international flights at other U.S. airports like Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Newark or JFK in New York.
Even without the summer’s disrupted travel, Thompson said flight connections are often tight.
“You’re always at the mercy of the airlines. We don’t want people calling us from the departure lounge with problems,” he said.
Many domestic flights that require transfers are also tricky, he said.
“The airlines operate on an ‘everything goes right’ scenario,” he said. “Everything does not always go right, and some layover times can be incredibly short and optimistic.”