Left to Stew When Flight Canceled

Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

The rights and privileges of travelers facing diverted, delayed and canceled domestic flights continues to be a subject of some mystification to many passengers.

Under deregulation, each airline can do as it pleases. Carriers have cut back on the amenities and courtesies they offer passengers in these situations. Low-frill airlines may have particularly stringent policies.

Airlines have guidelines governing these not-infrequent events, but their staffs generally have some latitude to extend extra courtesies. As a rule, it's up to the passenger to ask for such amenities as gratis phone calls or telegrams, meals, cab or limousine fare from airports to hotels, as well as hotel rooms.

"The basic premise passengers should remember is that they have to request help and to communicate any special circumstances," advised Mike Ferrua, vice president for airport operations for Western Airlines. "Don't take things for granted and simply let matters unfold."

If you learn en route of a delay, diversion or canceled flight that will create a serious problem for you, tell a flight attendant. It may be possible, if the situation warrants, to radio ahead. Similarly, the flight staff can relay your plight more easily to the carrier's ground staff than you can after the plane lands.

Tell Attendant Once you have landed, tell your dilemma to a customer service representative or comparable personnel. Try to do this privately, which might not be very easy. If you can't get through to a representative, ask to see the supervisor on duty or the station manager.

The trick is to be assertive without being abusive. If the customer service representative and/or supervisor is being besieged by irate passengers whose causes may not be as acute as yours, you can even try writing a quick note and handing it to a staffer.

The point is, again, to make sure the airline is aware of your predicament. If your needs aren't any more urgent than other passengers', you probably won't have much success and it isn't worth the effort.

Be sure that you understand the precise nature of any aid extended. To illustrate, when you get a meal coupon, check its dollar value, which should be stated on the voucher. This amount can vary from airport to airport on a carrier's route system, as well as from carrier to carrier. Some airlines are more liberal than others. Don't expect change if you spend less than the value of the meal coupon.

With flights that are diverted from one airport to another (for example, landing at Burbank or Ontario instead of at Los Angeles), airlines are likely to have different policies for diversions caused by circumstances under their control and those they have no control over.

In either case, you would likely get (although there's no guarantee) complimentary ground transportation from the airport you landed at to the airport you were supposed to arrive at. If there is a horde of passengers, your luggage will have to go on a separate bus.

If the diversion to an unscheduled airport was beyond the airline's control, such as with bad weather, the chances of any other courtesies such as phone calls and meals are considerably diminished.

But exceptions may be made for handicapped passengers, unaccompanied minors, mothers with small children and senior citizens.

One potential problem in this context is that the representative of the airline may not be at the unscheduled airport. In this case you would be dealing with people who may not have the latitude to extend extra courtesies.

In this vein, if you don't receive courtesies that you feel are warranted, keep track of any out-of-pocket expenses. Write to the airline's consumer affairs department later with details of your situation, plus copies of your receipts, and ask for reimbursement. You might be pleasantly surprised.

In cases in which the airline is responsible for the diverted flight, you're much more likely to receive pertinent amenities.

It's possible not to receive any courtesies at the airport of origin but to get appropriate amenities in a stopover city if you miss your connecting flight because of a carrier-controlled delay. For example, if your LAX-Chicago-New York flight was delayed, and you miss your connecting flight in Chicago, you would probably get certain privileges in Chicago.

Which Caused Delay? But if the airline wasn't responsible for the delay that caused you to miss your connection, the courtesies extended are likely to be less. If you're flying on an interline basis, the airline causing the delay is the one most likely to offer aid.

Policies about canceled flights are similar, depending to some extent on where the cancellation takes place and who is responsible. If the flight is canceled at the point of origin for reasons beyond the airline's control, you're not likely to get very many courtesies.

If the carrier is responsible for the cancellation, you might get a meal and gratis phone call (but not a hotel room if the city is your home) if you can't be rerouted within a certain number of hours. Four hours is the general cutoff point, but supervisors may have the discretion to extend help sooner.

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