Stuck in paradise: how to handle flight cancellations


Inside Honolulu Airport, where I was stranded for an entire day. Thanks, American Airlines!

Inside Honolulu Airport, where I was stranded for an entire day thanks to the ineptitude of American Airlines!

You think being stuck in paradise is a good thing? You’ve probably never been through a flight cancellation before.

I was just finishing up a week in beautiful O’ahu, Hawaii. Yes, it was as beautiful as they make it out to be. The weather was always perfect for the beach without it being too hot. The scenery and landscape was just awe-inspiring (its not just beaches). Even the people were extremely nice with their “Aloha” spirit. It’s very reassuring that no one will honk their horns during rush hour, which can be worse than New York City traffic (as hard as that is to believe). I was wrapping up things to take the 12-hour plane ride home from Honolulu Airport when disaster struck.

I was running late to Honolulu Airport. Fortunately, everything seemed to go according to plan, from the check-in to the airport security screening to finding my terminal (who knew I could get through everything in 15 minutes?). While pulling up to my terminal, they proceeded to announce my name on the airport PA system. I was happy that I would not be late for my flight and miss out on it. American Airlines had other ideas.

Once I arrive to my terminal, the lady attending the lone American Airlines counter refuses to help me. I keep on trying to tell her how I’m ready to miss my flight and I’m even pointing to the plane still docked at the open gate, but she refuses to listen. She starts making excuses and helps an elderly couple, who were the only other people there waiting for service at the terminal. Seeing that she’s basically ignoring me at this time, I run to four other terminals as I’m looking at my plane still docked right outside the terminal. The American Airlines representatives all say the same thing: the counter lady that was ignoring me has to be the one who helps me. So I try and go back, and just in time because she finishes helping the elderly couple. Then, she just leaves her post leaving me with literally no customer service representatives to help me as the plane starts to pull away from the terminal, all while blaming me for being “too late.” Meanwhile, the flight to Newark that just left had my luggage that apparently wasn’t “too late” to be checked in. Due to a flight cancellation because of engine failure, and the refusal for American Airlines to even try to help me in any way, I wound up going to JFK while my luggage wound up in Newark Airport (this is while staff was telling me I was “too late” for check-in). I had to sleep in the airport because not only did American Airlines never re-compensate me or even try to put me in a hotel, but I wanted to be at the airport so I wouldn’t miss my early morning flight next day.

f you get stranded in the airport, don’t panic. Part of being the quintessential NY Minute Traveler is to deal with contingencies such as this. From lost luggage to delayed or cancelled flights, it’s good to be prepared when problems like this happen. For those who say “it won’t happen to me,” it will if you travel frequently (isn’t that the whole idea of this blog?). Here’s what you can do when dealing with airlines:

File a complaint with the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation): You can use this web form to file a complaint for bad service on an airline, or go here if you have other concerns with an airline. Of course, the more details you have about your flight (like flight number, time and location), the better it will be for you.

Read up on the latest passenger’s bill of rights: As of April 2010, the DOT revised the passenger’s bill of rights in include better protections and compensation for stranded travelers. You can read up on the important parts or read up on the whole thing (of course, coming from a government bureaucracy, it reads as well as any site’s Terms of Service). Also, keep in mind that the European Union has a similar bill of rights with more protections.

Avoiding long airport lines is only a phone call away: When disaster struck that day in American Airlines, there was literally a 2-hour wait for customer service desks in Honolulu Airport that were obviously understaffed. While American Airlines would probably win first prize for “airline with the worst customer service,” it can easily happen with any other airline. When this happens, you too can be faced with hour-long lines so do yourself a favor and avoid them. Instead, get the customer service number for the airline and call a representative. They can do virtually everything that an airport desk agent can do, so sit pretty while you watch others scramble on line.

Write a letter: If you’re dissatisfied with the airline’s service, you should reach out to the company to see if they’re willing to compensate you. The better airlines usually do, Avoid reaching out through e-mail and Twitter (Twitter accounts usually re-direct you anyway). While you can call customer service to complain, the best way to get in contact with the airline is through regular “snail mail” (writing a letter). Nowadays, mail is usually the best way to contact an airline (or any big company in general) since they never get letters, but receive a ton of e-mail, which may lead to yours being lost in the flood. Be descriptive of the details, record names of people you speak to and make your problem clear to them. Airlines do actually respond to letters through the mail. It may not be the quickest, but it’s the surest way your complaint won’t be overlooked.

Sleep in the airport: Yes, it’s a legitimate option, as I just finished talking about how I did it. If you have no money or reliable transportation in/out of the airport, or if you just don’t feel like dealing with security checkpoints and rude airline staff like in my case, it’s not such a bad option when worse comes to worse. While you should still watch your luggage, it’s still relatively safe. Check these tips for sleeping in airports to get you started. Keep in mind that NOT ALL airports are open 24 hours, which means you will get kicked out into the street if it’s not, so always check and be prepared.

Another thing is that of course, the airline you fly with counts heavily towards your satisfaction as a customer. For example, American Airlines was absolutely terrible. All the agents (and even supervisors) were focusing on spinning things as opposed to actually trying to help. They’d tell me things in a matter-of-factly way when they were not true, and they’d just continue to be steadfast with their half-baked stories even when I would prove it was a lie. It felt like someone was trying to telling me that the world is flat, even though everyone knows the world is round. Sometimes, they’d even lie to my face just so I would leave them alone and then they would back out of their word after. All stations were understaffed and along all the legs of my flight, I’d see so many people in airports experiencing similar problems to mine specifically with American Airlines that I lost count. On top of that, when I reached to them with the letter above, they basically gave me a response after about two months equivalent to “sorry, not sorry.” While that experience had made me never ride with American Airlines ever again, unfortunately today’s domestic airline market makes it really hard to avoid airlines in a near-monopoly, while you pay more for less service. Fortunately, things like this don’t happen very often, but you can be rest-assured that you’ll be prepared if the time comes.

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