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What Are Travelers Entitled to When Flights Are Canceled Beyond an Airline's Control?

Checking in at Boracay Airport in the Philippines
When I stood in line waiting to check in at Boracay Airport in the Philippines, little did I know that it would be well over 24 hours before my plane would take off,  that it would be from another airport, and that I would arrive at my desteination about 36 hours behind schedule. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Violence erupted at a Japanese airport on 23 December 2016 when flights were cancelled and passengers were stranded in the terminal  because of heavy snowfall.

Dozens of tourists from mainland China kicked up quite a a fuss, with some of them attacking airline staff and clashing with the police that were called in to restore order.

“It was absolutely crazy that the situation flared up so quickly,” Sean Fitzpatrick told the South China Morning Post, an English language daily newspaper in Hong Kong.

“The group started chanting and made things very tense and wrapped the atmosphere up into almost a riot situation.

“We’ve got two young children who witnessed a lot of things that terrified them and actually upset them.”

Sean took his wife and children out of the airport because he thought the situation was spiraling out of control.

Shooting at Airport in Fort Lauderdale

Less than two weeks later, Esteban Santiago opened fire in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2 of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) in the state of Florida in the United States.

Five people were killed and several others were wounded.

The airport terminal was quickly evacuated following the shooting, and flight schedules were disrupted for the rest of the day.

Delta Air Lines, which operates 33 daily flights from the airport to nine travel destinations, cancelled 14 of its flights.

An additional six flights destined for the airport were diverted to Jacksonville International Airport, Miami International Airport, and West Palm Beach International Airport, all of which are also n Florida.

The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went so far as to order that all traffic to and from the airport be temporarily suspended.

All of which begs the question: what happens to stranded passengers when something beyond an airline's control takes place?

In this case, Delta Air Lines waved fees for passengers wanting or having to change their travel plans. But were they required to do this? 

What's more, what about any additional expenses that the passengers encountered because of the cancellation or delay of flights? Food? Lodging? Ground transport? Parking?

Typhoon Disrupts Flights in the Philippines

I was stranded at an airport in the Philippines a few months ago when an approaching typhoon forced the cancellation of flights.

Following repeated flight delays, we heard the dreaded announcement over the loud speaker: our flight had been canceled.

We were told to return to the check-in counter, where we were offered two choices.

The first choice was transportation to another airport, which was not being affected by the weather.

That would result in my having to travel two to three hours by bus to the other airport.

Then I would have to take a connecting flight via Manila rather than flying non-stop  to my destination.

As a result, I would arrive at my destination in the wee hours of the morning, meaning that my entire first day at a five-star hotel would be down the drain.

Very Early Breakfast

Instead of arriving in time for some fun in the sun before dinner, I would arrive in time for a very early breakfast the next morning.

My second alternative was being accommodated on a flight the following day from the original airport.

I asked about accommodation if I took a flight the following day. I was told that since the cancellation was due to conditions beyond the airline’s control, I was not entitled to a voucher – neither for food nor for a hotel room.

Luckily for me, there was a modest guest house across the street from the airport terminal – it was a very small airport in a very small town.

Fortunately, the room rate was quite reasonable (even if the room was a bit Spartan, and the bathroom was down the hall).

I also met a couple of other stranded travelers in the hotel’s café. We hit it off and spent the evening eating, chatting, and drinking - but not in that order.

Talk about all’s well that ends well! But not everyone is so lucky.

Travel Insurance

Yuen Chun-ning, managing director of Worldwide Package Tour, told the South China Morning Post that the travel agency had nine tour groups with about 300 travelers on flights from Sapporo to Hong Kong that were cancelled because of the snow storm last December.

He said that the departure times for eight groups were delayed by one day and that one group’s destination was changed from Hong Kong to Tokyo.

Fortunately, 90% of the group ‘s members had purchased travel insurance and would get compensation amounts of between HK$1,500 and HK$2,000, which works out to US$195 to US$260, to compensate them for the delay.

Yuen said that since these were all five to seven day trips, “Cutting one day from the itinerary will not seriously affect the travel arrangements.”

I beg to differ.

Cutting one day off a five day trips works out to a 20% reduction of your trip.

Considering that travelers spend most of the first and final days of their trip traveling, I would hardly call that a minor inconvenience.

It would have left me feeling, "I wish I had stayed home!"

Squaremouth.com to the Rescue

According to www.Squaremouth.com, travelers with insurance policies purchased before an event such as the shooting in Fort Lauderdale might be eligible for some benefits related to the event, but coverage would be limited.

The insurance comparison website emphasizes that such policies must be purchased in advance of the incident.

Sounds like common sense to me, but I guess that not all travelers have common sense.

Would anyone seriously expect an insurance company to compensate them for something that had happened before they purchased the policy?

And here's the rub: policies are very specific about what kinds of flight delays are covered.

“Most Trip Cancellation policies cover specific events causing a flight to be delayed or outright cancelled,” the website says.

“Unfortunately, the shooting that occurred on January 6th, does not fall within one of these covered events.”

What Policies Cover

Inclement weather, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and mechanical breakdowns are usually covered by travel insurance, but what about a random act of violence?

“While terrorism has not been officially ruled out as a cause, the suspect appears to have been acting alone,” the website says.

“Unless the shooting is deemed a terrorist attack by the U.S. Department of State, it will not be covered under standard Trip Cancellation policies.”

Travel insurance policies with the Travel Delay and Missed Connection benefits, however, may cover “any delay of the common carrier,” the website says.

“Travelers with this coverage may be eligible for benefits while they are delayed, or if they miss a connecting flight . . . Benefits also extended to those whose flights were outright canceled while they make new arrangements.”

Benefits vary widely from policy to policy so it is important to make sure exactly what your policy covers.

A travel delay benefit usually covers meals, accommodations, and transportation.

A missed connection benefit usually covers additional transportation expenses for travelers to catch up to their trip.

Both require a minimum delay time to be met, usually between three and 12 hours.

What’s Covered by Blue Cross

I’ve checked my annual travel insurance policy, and it requires a delay of at least six consecutive hours before benefits kick in.

This period of time is calculated from the “original scheduled departure time” to “the first available alternative transportation offered by” the same operator.

Benefits include HK$250 (US$32) for each consecutive six-hour period that is completed and “any additional accommodation expenses reasonably and inevitably incurred overseas as a direct result of” the covered delay.

Since I was offered transportation to another airport, I’m not sure how the period would be calculated.

Would the period of time for “the first alternative transportation offered” be based on the time the bus departed from the original airport to the alternate airport?

Or would it be calculated based on the time the flight departed from the alternate airport?

Had I accepted the airline's second choice, would I have been entitled to spend the night at a hotel near the original airport and depart on the first available flight the following day (as I ended up doing)?

The next time I travel, I’m taking two copies  of my insurance policy with me. I think I'll also enlarge the airline's Conditions of Carriage to a legible size, and take copies of those along with me, as well.

I'll put one set in my checked luggage and another set in my carry-on. If nothing more, it will give me something to read while I wait for my flight to depart.

It might even help me decide which course of action I should take if I have a choice.

I suggest that you do the same, as well! But please don't take this as legal advice. Do your own due diligence and do what you think is best.

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