7 Tips on how to Handle Flight Cancellations and Delays

Scheduled to come back home from Montego Bay, Jamaica Saturday, April 18, we made our way to the airport early morning at 9:30am for Continental flight #865 going into Houston at 2pm that day. Upon arrival at the airport we were told that the flight had been delayed for 4 hours because of bad weather in Houston. We realized right away that this would mean we were going to miss our connection to Indianapolis which was the last of the day. Since we were eager to get back we inquired whether there were any seats available on the Continental flight to Newark but were told that it was full.

So we decided to enjoy another jerk chicken at the airport and were happily munching our food right across the gate of the flight to Newark. People started boarding while we were rapping up our meal and by the time we had paid they basically had closed the gate. For fun we walked over and asked whether they had had any seats left on that plane and were told that in fact, there had been two empty seats (which we could have taken).

Tip 1: When you find out your flight is delayed because of bad weather and the airline agent tells you that there are no seats available on another flight, go to the gate and standby. Chances are, someone is not going to show and you can grab their seats.

Had we done that, we would have been home Saturday night as originally planned. Around 5pm, still at Montego Bay airport, we were told that the plane we were waiting for (which came from Houston) had still not been able to depart. They said that they would transfer all approx. 200 passengers to the Sunset Beach resort where we could relax and have a meal while waiting for the plane. They assured us that they would pick us up around 8pm same day for our flight back. It took us about 1 hour to get from the airport to the hotel which was actually located within 10 minutes from the airport. They literally made us check-in which meant another hour in line.

View from Sunset Beach Resort's room tower

View from Sunset Beach Resort\’s room tower

The hotel was basic, especially after having spent a week at the Iberostar Grand Rose Hall and Couples Sans Souci. A motel room at best however, the food was very decent and the ocean views great. Having a hotel management background I applaud the hotel for the fact that they were able to make 100 rooms available within an hour. To accommodate and feed 200 guests you were not really expecting is quite an accomplishment.

Tip 2: If you booked your flight with a travel agent, make sure to give them a call and see what they can do for you!

In this case I was the travel agent and figured I would be proactive. Theoretically we were scheduled to arrive into Houston around 2am. So I called Continental’s reservation desk to get us on the first flight out of Houston on Sunday morning. We were told that all flights from Houston to Indianapolis were sold out until Tuesday. Innocently I asked whether they were going to provide us with accommodation in Houston. They said that since the delay was weather related they could not take care of it. So I started asking for availability for flights to airports within driving distance of Indianapolis. We ended up finding one going into Lexington, KY the next morning. Since Lexington is about 3 hours away I also setup a rental car (which obviously was at our cost).

8pm and the buses to transfer us back to the airport are ready at the hotel. Everybody grabs a seat, anxious to finally get on a plane. Half way to the airport the driver’s phone rings. He is instructed to return all passengers to the hotel. Although the plane arrived in Montego Bay, Continental had decided to cancel the flight. 9pm back at the hotel. 200 people without luggage. Big invasion of the hotel’s gift shop where a toothbrush and a small tube of tooth paste cost $10.00. Cash preferably, since the credit card machine was not working. They told us to be ready at 6am for the transfer to the airport.

Tip #3: Don’t overdo it. At this point I had obviously realized that my preparation for the next day’s flight to Lexington had been in vain. Looking back at it, I would probably no longer try to take faith in my own hands before I am sure I am going somewhere. Also, since they had changed the original itinerary from Indianapolis to Lexington, our reservation was removed from the system which meant they were no longer confirming other options for us.

Come 6am everyone was in the lobby ready to hop on the transfer buses. To everybody’s surprise, our suitcases were waiting in the lobby as well. Somehow they had failed to inform us that our luggage was at the hotel and actually available to us. They had also failed to predict that 200 passengers plus their 400 suitcases would require more buses than originally planned. By 7:30am everyone was finally at the airport, ready to check-in for a flight that was scheduled to leave at 8:15am. As you can guess, it took an eternity to check-in 200 people all concerned about their connecting flights. We were literally last in line, and were very happy to hear that the plane would wait for us. At 9am we finally arrived at the gate and shortly after, the plane departed.

Finally, Houston. We were told to go through customs, get our luggage and proceed to the Continental service desk. Guess how long that line was? Lucky me, my husband has an Elite status which allows us to stand in the “VIP” line.

Tip #4: If you fly often, try to use the same airline in order to get a preferred status. In these situations it can help you do things regular passengers can’t.

But even there the line was very long, and it took an eternity for them to handle even one case. Looking for a way out we asked a Continental employee and she told us that although we shouldn’t we could exit and then re-enter and go to the service desk in the departure hall. Not much to lose we figured that was probably the best option.

The departure hall was jammed with people and we didn’t quite know where to go. We figured, let’s do the Elite Check-in counters. Obviously this is all electronic but we succeeded in grabbing one of the agents. It took her a while to understand what we actually wanted but at last she seemed to get the picture. She told us that the next flight available to Indianapolis was on Tuesday morning (here we were on Sunday morning) and we said there was no way. There was absolutely no availability, even on the surrounding area flights. However, the lady said we could always go stand-by for the flight to Indianapolis which was scheduled to depart two hours later. We said yes please and were put on the stand-by list. We were number 2 + 3.

Tip #5: Check flight availability and stand-by lists online at www.continental.com. It is also easy to get this information on your pda. There are certain rules to standing by. 1. you have to actually physically be at the airport, meaning you cannot ask to stand-by when still in Montego Bay. 2. there is a certain hierarchy. Elite members come before regular passengers, people who already stood-by but couldn’t get on rollover to the next flight and grab a higher position…

We headed over to security and once again, a huge line. Lucky us, the Elite status let us bypass all passengers and we were through security in less than 5 minutes. I then remembered that I still had some Continental President’s lounge access passes and after talking to the receptionist we decided to use them. Apart from drinks, they provide free wifi and a VIP customer service desk which proved to be very helpful.

Tip #6: You might have to pay for the access to the President’s lounge but it definitely offers its perks. If you want to use your laptop to research options you don’t pay for the access, whereas you have to pay everywhere else in the airport. If you are still reluctant to pay you might want to position yourself and your laptop close to the lounge. Who knows, you might just get lucky.

First thing we did is heading to the customer service desk. The lady said she was actually able to confirm one seat on the plane to Indy (obviously for the husband with Elite status), however, that the second person still had to standby. We grabbed the seat, well aware that we might eventually get separated. While sitting in the lounge I constantly checked my stand-by status and got bumped back to spot #5 by Elite members and rollovers.

We made it to the gate just before the actual boarding time and I was told I had to wait and see. My husband boarded the plane and with him everyone else. The desk person started calling the names of Standby #1, #2 and #3. They all showed. She called for #4 but the person wasn’t there. So little me, #5, took her spot.

Tip #7: Don’t get discouraged by a long stand-by list. A lot of things happen, especially when several flights have been canceled and people book and make reservations in all directions.

We got back to Indianapolis 24 hours after our originally scheduled arrival time. These are the main lessons I’ve learned:

If you are stranded someplace out of the country your first priority is to get back to the US. Once in the US your negotiating power is way better. What I found out later while reading Continental’s inflight magazine is that when they cancel a flight, they automatically rebook the passengers on the next available connection for their itinerary. Start of by trusting in that.

Once you get to the airport you might not be happy with their selection but now you can actually negotiate and stand-by.

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