If you're flying in the winter — late December through early March, there's about a one in 30 chance that your flight is going to be canceled. But even in warm weather there's about a one in a 100 chance that your plane isn't leaving the tarmac with you on it.
This hurts most when you're travelling internationally, have connecting flights, or haven't baked in much slack between your arrival and an event.
Here are your first steps.
• Get in line, now. “If you are in the airport and your flight is canceled ... be the first one at the customer service desk,” said Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org. You're now competing with all of the other passengers for the dozen-or-so empty seats on the other flights heading your way. “All of the flights are booked beyond capacity, so getting another flight will be difficult — unless they are first in line.”
• Get on the phone to the airline while you're in line, if you can. Sometimes, it's easier — and faster — to call. Airlines vary, but in Southwest Airlines’ case they're usually mobilizing the support troops to deal with a cancelation about 15 minutes before formally announcing it to the passengers, said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest. “Often your quicker avenue is southwest.com — or calling the airline number.” Here's a list of airline phone numbers.
• Check to see if you’ve already been rebooked. If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on their first flight to your destination on which space is available without charging you anything more.
• Negotiate. The airline might be a step ahead of you, but if your connections are time-sensitive on the ground — a wedding, a performance, your bail hearing — then you may have to negotiate with the counter agent to get you on a competing airline. They're reluctant to do that, but if you find a flight on another airline, you can ask your carrier if it will endorse your ticket on the new flight. If they do this, they'll pick up the difference in cost for the last-minute flight. But they don't have to, because …
• They don't owe you money. If you're bumped off an already-full flight, can't get you on another one taking off within an hour and you were there on time and ready to roll, they're legally obligated to write you a check under new passenger rights rules. But if a whole domestic flight is canceled, you're not legally owed anything except a refund or booking on the next flight.
Here are a couple of tools that might help.
• Next Flight by TouchMeme is a $3 app for both Android and iPhone that lists all the available flights for the selected day from 1200 airline carriers, including their departure and arrival times, terminals and gate information.
• GateGuru is a free app (for iPhone and Android) that shows you where the gates are and what's near them — most valuable when you're in a sprawling foreign airport.
• Flightaware.com tracks domestic flights, live, with current weather. It also lists all the currently-canceled and delayed flights by airline and airport here.