With a week of stormy weather again hitting the east coast of the United States and backing up airline operations nationwide as a result, tens of thousands of weary passengers are left stranded at airports across the country waiting for an empty seat on another flight to become available. In times like these ― and this past week has been particularly bad ― we hear stories of angry travelers yelling at gate agents, sleeping in airports, and venting about it all on social media.
But this series of storms, which seems to have been more disruptive than usual, should serve to remind travelers that it is not only a good idea, but also their responsibility, to have a reasonable backup plan prepared before embarking on itineraries that may intersect with inclement weather.
The storms that hit the southeastern U.S. this week were reported days in advance. National weather services issued alerts and warnings and diligent travelers checking weather forecasts not only in destinations but in layover cities as well could have easily predicted the disruptions to come and either altered travel plans or requested a re-routing through an unaffected connection airport.
The importance of such pro-activity in travel planning becomes self-evident when we see how many transiting passengers were caught off guard by the well publicized approaching storms. Most became frustrated with the ensuing delays and cancellations, and understandably so. But some decided to lash out and blame their air carriers and airline staff for their misfortunes, even going so far as to demand meals and accommodations during weather delays.
Some airlines did improvise to provide food to standard passengers, such as when Delta ordered several enormous pizza deliveries and passed out slices to stranded passengers in airports like Norfolk and Atlanta and even on planes that were stuck out on runways. But this example was just a generous gesture on Delta’s part. The airline was by no means obligated to dip into its own pockets to feed passengers in airports while waiting for bad weather to pass.
In fact, there’s little that airlines are required to do in cases of delays caused by weather or even air traffic control issues. These are situations beyond the airline’s control, and such delays are commonly disclosed risks about which passengers should be well-informed and adequately prepared.
So what can one do to prepare if you’re stuck transiting through a region that may get hit with weather delays? Other than the initial options mentioned above ― change dates or request re-routing ― you can also research alternate forms of transportation and make backup reservations to use in case the worst comes to pass.
As planes finally got clearance to return to the air in parts of the southeast on Thursday and passengers on canceled flights realized that they would have to be accommodated on a space-available basis as regularly scheduled flights began departing again, some started getting the idea to rent cars and drive to their final destinations. A few passengers in Atlanta took to social media to declare that they were securing one-way rentals for under $100 to make 5-10 hour drives and get home in the same day, while many more who caught wind of this strategy later were out of luck after car rental agencies quickly sold out.
But a prepared passenger, knowing bad weather was highly probable this week, could have made a refundable rental car reservation in advance just in case it might be needed. The same could be done for a hotel room, just in case you’re stuck overnight. Most hotels have a refundable reservation option, even if it costs slightly more than the standard rate. By the time a late flight is canceled and a frustrated passenger realizes that the airline cannot provide accommodation because the cancellation was due to weather, hotel room capacity in major hub cities will disappear very quickly as other passengers rush to book from their smart phones before even leaving the gate.
Right now I am sitting in the SkyClub at Reagan National Airport in our nation’s capital and listening to countless stories of passengers around me who have been trying to get home for days. In a city like Washington, DC, here is what I would have done knowing that severe weather warnings had been issued for the area to or through which I was flying.
First, I would have checked my itinerary to make sure I was not flying into the chaos. In this past week’s case, Atlanta seems to have been hit the worse. Unfortunately that’s the largest hub for Delta, which is a major carrier out of the national capital region. But Charlotte, an American Airlines hub, was also predictably affected, as well as other cities up and down the east coast.
If I could not alter my travel dates or re-route through the northeast or midwest, I would have made a hotel reservation with free cancellation near the airport in case I ended up being stuck here overnight. I would have also booked a one-way car rental reservation if my destination was within reasonable driving distance, but I would have made sure not to use a pre-paid option. That option may offer a small five or ten percent discount off of the rate, but it would not have been refundable had I decided not to use the reservation in the end.
I would have also considered booking a backup train ticket on Amtrak too, which usually allows refunds with only a very small fee deducted. This would have been ideal had I been traveling to or transiting somewhere in the northeast like New York City or Boston, and just adds another level of preparedness and options that my fellow passengers may not have if our flight were severely delayed or canceled.
As I sit for hours and hours in this crowded airport today, I watch as my weekend jet-setting plans fade farther and farther into the realm of fantasy. Good thing I thought to make a weekend car rental reservation just in case. So instead of jetting off to the Caribbean to escape the returning cool weather as I had planned, I have decided instead to bundle up and embark on a weekend road trip out to a dog-friendly northern Virginia winery.
I have never been to a winery anywhere, so now I will be able to check that off my must-do travel list. But one experience I will not be checking off my list today, thanks to some foresight and pre-planning, is camping out in an airport.