With weather delays in the forecast, air travelers should pack their patience and follow these tips

By Laura Daily,

Patrick T. Fallon AFP/Getty Images

A plane flies through the plume of smoke created by the Palisades Fire in Topanga State Park, northwest of Los Angeles, on May 15. Heat waves and fires are exacerbating the usual summer weather delays this year.

Travelers taking to the skies in post-pandemic enthusiasm are running into an age-old reality: Mother Nature rules. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, hail, wind and lightning can wreak havoc at airports, causing flight delays and cancellations. And lately, thanks to extreme weather out West, we can add heat, fire and smoke.

In 2019, flight delays cost airlines, passengers and others an estimated $33 billion, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Weather continues to be the No. 1 cause, accounting for nearly 70 percent of all delays.

Any kind of weather can be problematic, but the FAA says convective storms that strike in the summer are the most challenging. These storms typically form, grow and move swiftly, covering wide swaths of airspace. Especially in summer, thunderstorms percolate in midafternoon as temperatures rise, triggering a domino effect of delays and cancellations at airports.

“Safety is our number one priority,” says Virginia Boyle, FAA vice president of system operations services. “If there’s a storm over an airport, airplanes may not depart as scheduled. Or you may see a reduction in arrivals, say 40 instead of 60 an hour due to a ground delay. You may be held at your departure airport, even though the weather is fine there, until conditions at your destination airport allow for arrivals.”

The agency, which coordinates up to 43,000 flights in the United States per day, takes no pleasure in onerous delays and a backlog of flights. “Our job is the Waze of the sky, sending aircraft on different routes around weather,” says Boyle, who spent 16 years in an air traffic control tower. “Airlines do a good job of scheduling both ingress and egress that makes the system work beautifully. Our goal is to keep airplanes moving. Air traffic controllers don’t cheer when weather rolls in.”

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So far this year, airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, Memphis, Denver and Miami have seen more than their fair share of thunderstorms and ensuing delays, while heat and wind have caused problems in Las Vegas. Combine those with the usual suspects for frequent delays — Newark, LaGuardia, Chicago O’Hare and San Francisco — and the odds are that few air travelers will escape inconvenience.

How does a smart traveler handle weather-related delays and cancellations? I phoned three road warriors for their advice: David Swanson, an award-winning travel journalist and past president of the Society of American Travel Writers; Deborah Wakefield, vice president of media relations for CityPASS, a sightseeing ticket service; and Kristie England, a veteran travel adviser with Universal Travel in Beaumont, Tex. Each takes to the skies at least once a month, if not more. What follows is their collective wisdom, which should help you regain some control in what is usually an uncontrollable situation.

Michael Ciaglo

Getty Images

A Frontier Airlines plane sits at a gate at Denver International Airport on March 13 after more than 1800 flights into and out of Denver were canceled.

Have a backup plan. When making a reservation, investigate additional flights your airline has along the same route. That way, should your flight be canceled or delayed, you’ll know your options. Swanson, who lives in San Diego, almost always has to make a connection. “So, if I’m headed to the Caribbean and connecting through Miami, I’m going to start watching incoming flights to both San Diego and Miami.” Using the airline’s website, he tracks the flights to see whether they are generally on time or delayed. If it’s the latter, he looks for backups.

Know your airport. Avoid airports that typically have weather issues and look for alternate routes. For example, instead of flying through Chicago O’Hare in the winter, choose an airport in warmer climes, such as Phoenix or Dallas. It’s a good idea to build in extra time for a connection, but especially so in airports prone to bad weather. You may have to cool your heels in a terminal, but at least you won’t be scrambling to make your second leg, or worse, have to wait until the next day, if your flight is delayed and you miss your connection.

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Be an early bird. Storms pop up in the afternoon, so the earlier you fly, the less likely you’ll encounter a delay or cancellation. “Morning flights are not my favorite, but it’s better than being stuck at the airport,” Wakefield says. “Sometimes, it may be worth it to stay overnight at an inexpensive hotel to catch an early flight.”

Show loyalty. “Having elite status with an airline means if there is a delay, I get bumped up the priority list to be rebooked before others who aren’t part of the airline’s loyalty program,” Swanson says. Is it your first time flying a specific airline? Join its loyalty program. “Even a little bit of status is better than no status,” Wakefield says. She also strongly suggests downloading the airline’s app onto your smartphone. “If there’s a cancellation or major delay, while everyone else is rushing to the service counter, [it’s] likely that app will notify you of alternative flights and allow you to easily rebook in minutes.”

Join a club. Wakefield recommends that frequent travelers purchase a club membership for the airline they fly most often. Beyond the food and drinks, comfy atmosphere and free Wi-Fi that await behind closed doors, airline clubs are staffed with top-tier customer service agents who can quickly rebook you. Should a delay be announced at the gate, make a beeline to the club for assistance.

Have someone in your corner. Whether it’s a spouse, travel agent, administrative assistant or good friend, have someone standing by to advocate on your behalf, England says. Contact that person to get through to customer service or check online for alternatives while you stand in line. For example, a travel agent can immediately look into the airline reservation system and grab a seat for you on another flight.

Remember: Airlines owe you zip. Unlike a mechanical issue or being “bumped” off an oversold flight, weather delays don’t lead to any compensation, as long as the airline offers you some sort of alternative, England says. “If they had to give everyone a hotel room or meal because of weather, they’d go out of business.” Of course, this also gives airlines a reason to blame the weather.

Don’t expect to fly the competition. Back in the day, airlines would endorse a ticket to another carrier — but no longer, England says. These voluntary “interline” agreements allowed airlines to essentially send a stranded passenger over to a competitor and transfer the ticket payment. Today, no airline wants to pay its competition to get you where you need to go. When Delta cancels its flight from Miami to Dallas, it’s probably not going to put you on an American flight.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario. England offers the same advice she gave her niece, whose family was repeatedly delayed on a recent trip. Pack food and snacks. Many airports haven’t fully reopened their shops and restaurants, and you may be stuck somewhere after hours. Have extra essentials in your carry-on, such as a change of clothes, contact lens solution and a phone charger. If you’re traveling with young children, bring games or other ways to entertain them.

Flight insurance isn’t worth it. Unless you’re traveling internationally, flight insurance for delays coverage is not money well-spent. Trip-delay coverage usually kicks in only after more than six hours (in some cases, eight to 12 hours) or a cancellation. Travel insurance for a domestic trip may be purchased for about $100, but at that price, you may only receive up to $150 per day with a three-day maximum for out-of-pocket expenses, such as a hotel room, meals or a taxi. To get greater benefits, you would have to spend more up front. “I wouldn’t get it solely for flight delays, only international travel, where you have a large investment to lose,” England says.

Wear a smile. All three experts say a bit of courtesy goes a long way. Remember: Customer service representatives and gate agents have no control over delays and cancellations. Yet, many passengers are quick to direct their ire at the folks working the front lines. Showing a little sympathy and taking a friendly approach is more likely to get you booked on the next available flight.

Daily is a writer based in Denver. Her website is dailywriter.net.

Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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