I was sitting in Philadelphia earlier waiting to go back home to Houston when my flight going to Houston was delayed because the plane was coming from Chicago was delayed because of ice and snow. Unfortunately, we were only scheduled to be delayed 43 minutes (as I write this, I'm sitting on the plane knowing now that we are going to be delayed about 95 minutes in all), but as the gate agents were trying to accommodate all the connecting passengers, a common theme was coming up, that no one that was going to miss the last flight of the night to their destination was getting a hotel and some people were feeling short-changed. Now before you all get irate about this, I agree with you, the airline is not getting you to your destination because their flight was late, but the reason the flight was late was because it spent over an hour waiting to be de-iced in Chicago before it could make it to Philadelphia and to add to it, as I was flying today, the winds were very strong from the Southwest and that was just going to add to the length of the flight. What does this all mean? If you actually read the policy on the back of your ticket, the airlines are not responsible for delays that they cannot control. While each airline may be different than the next, the most commonly used reasons are acts of God, also known as weather.
The only time an airline may be held responsible is if it is an aircraft maintenance issue, a crew scheduling issue, or an oversell issue. The last one, an oversell issue, bothers me greatly, even though I can understand why they do it. It is mainly used because statistically, someone always misses their flight, and that could theoretically be used for revenue generation. Regardless, it still bothers me when someone gets left behind because the flight is oversold. Crew scheduling is a little more complicated because both pilots and flight attendants are limited to how long we can be on duty. Some people think this is just a cheap way to get out of work, while I say, go see how competent you are after being on duty for 16 hours on duty. If a flight crew times out or gets stuck somewhere and the flight cancels, it's on the airline to find a replacement crew (which is rare to have available these days because we're so short staffed) or provide hotels for anyone that can't get to where they need to go that night. Maintenance issues are fairly obvious, something breaks, and the plane can't go. It always blows me away when people are so eager to go when something is broken saying there are so many precautions in place. The reason the airlines are the safest mode of transportation despite being so dangerous is because we have so many checks in place. Regardless, if passengers actually knew about everything we are flying in and just how dangerous it can be, people wouldn't want to go anymore, but pilots are highly specialized and trained to work in these environments safely. With that being said, if a pilot is saying no, trust me, you don't want to go.
So there are only three true times that an airline should claim responsibility, but there are a lot more, i.e. weather, that an airline is not required to since they had no control over it. Simple way is to think, could the airline have done anything realistic that could have caused this flight continue to its destination? If yes, they should compensate you for a room and food if overnight. If no, then they could not control the cause of the cancelation or missed connection and therefore are not responsible for the flight.
Now, what do you do if you're in that situation that the airline is not responsible for the missed flight? First off, talk to an agent and talk fast. Most people have flight alerts and trackers on their phones and if you find out that your flight is going to be delayed or not make it in time for your connection, get in line to speak with a gate agent. This is the most important thing you can do. The first people in line are the first ones to get help and that usually means the difference between getting home that night or spending the night at a hotel on your expense. I'll get back to this in a moment and expand after I've explained a few other options.
What the airline can do is obviously try to get you on the next flight, if there is a next flight, as soon as you get to your connecting city. Another option is to connect in another city that your airline flies to and try connecting out of there. Lastly, the option that is always left out that sometimes benefits you the most is another airline. In the case of Philadelphia, you have US Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Air Tran Airways. Have them check every single airline if need be. A common misconception is that you must be on the same "network", such as Star Alliance, Sky Team, or One World. Again, that is not true. Some gate agents may not suggest it because it costs their airline more money, but they know that they are allowed to do it and should do it. Sometimes, you can be really lucky and if you're at a hub airport (as Philadelphia was for US Airways and a focus city for Southwest and Delta), you can often get a direct flight to your destination without having to take a connection anywhere. The best part of all this is that you will not pay a dime extra for this. The big issue though when changing airlines or flights comes when you check bags. Often times, bags may be already loaded on a broken airplane or at the bottom of a stack of bags in some cart on the other side of the airport. This is one of the big reasons why I always tell people, never check your bags. Always take a bag that can be considered a carry on. So you don't want to take your bag with you throughout the airport, no problem, you can always check your bag at the gate and know it's not going to be sent on another plane or get left behind because you will drop it plane side on the jet bridge. Another benefit is again, you don't have to pay a dime when you check your bag at the gate. Now don't try doing this with some massive suitcase, but you can probably get through security with something that might exceed the carry-on bag limitation. Now you got your bags with you and a possibility to go direct to your destination.
I'll wrap this up quickly going back to what I was saying before about getting to a gate agent early on. If you're gate checking a bag or trying to get something changed on your reservation such as a missed flight, if you wait, everyone else is going to be getting in front of you and now you have 30+ people getting their reservations modified before you. Well that connecting flight on American or the direct flight on US Airways may only have four seats available and if they are all taken by the first four people in line, you're out of luck. Just the same, the sooner you get in line, the sooner you might be able to catch that flight that leaves in 20 minutes in another terminal. If you wait too long, you won’t be able to catch it in time.
Lastly, just be kind with the gate agents. I commute for work and I regularly deal with them. There are some that just don't understand that you need help and there are some that I swear just live on making people miserable. Just the same, there are many out there that really do want to get people where they need to go as safely and as conveniently as possible for everyone. With that all being said, I've seen tens of thousands of passengers dealing with gate agents and I can tell you one thing that is certain, you get snippy with one, you'll get nothing back. Just the same about being quick to the desk, don't attack them as soon as they get there. They may have just gotten to work and not know that the flight is delayed or have even had their coffee yet. Give them a few minutes to get settled in and then approach them. My personal policy is to get "in line" and then wait about 6 feet or so from the counter. That way they know you're in line, but you're not hovering over them. You never know, they may be nice back to you and give you that hotel for the flight you're about to miss because of weather....
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Lastly, both men and women please don’t forget to get checked up and screened for breast cancer. It affects more people than many realize and checkups are very quick and easy. It could save your life or the life of a loved one.
Here's to clear skies and smooth flying ahead!