By phone: “Hello? Hello? Chris? Sorry for all the noise. I’m stuck at the airport. My morning flight to Mexico City on Volaris just canceled, and they can’t put me on another flight until 11 pm tonight. There’s an Aeromexico flight at noon, but it’s $1,100. What can I do? What are my rights? Everyone around here is so pissed off!”
By email: “Frontier just canceled my flight to Tampa four hours before I was supposed to take off. They’re telling me there is no way to get there today. Does anyone have insight here? I am so angry/sad/lost.”
My reply: “When a flight cancels, all the airline has to do is provide full refund or a seat on its next flight. There are flights on other airlines to Tampa, but they are not required to accommodate passengers on those. It’s kinda what you get when booking with ultra low cost carriers. What was your fare?”
That’s typical of an increasing number of desperate inquiries I get from travelers marooned by canceled flights on low-fare carriers. (Low fare carriers in the US include Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit. Volaris is a low fare carrier in Mexico. European low fare carriers include Norwegian, WOW, Easyjet and Ryanair)
The sad news is that there’s very little you can do if you are stuck in an irregular operation like a long delay or cancellation (called IROPS travel industry parlance). In the case of flight cancellation, all any airline is contractually required to do is offer you a seat on their next available flight, or refund your money if you decide to cancel the trip altogether. It is not required to offer you a seat on another carrier.
The problem with most low fare carriers is that they usually only offer one or two flights per day on most routes. If your low-fare flight cancels, you might have to wait until the end of the day– or worse, the next day to be re-accommodated on that carrier. (And if you are traveling during peak season, you might have to wait a few days if flights are sold out.)
What’s important to reiterate is that the low-fare carrier is under no obligation to pay for your flight on another airline. Back in the day, airlines would frequently offer to put you on another carrier with which they had an “interline agreement.” but most airlines, especially low-fare airlines, have ditched those to save money. (Delta and American ditched their interline agreement in 2015, which exacerbated its operational meltdown last week.)
So, you end up “getting what you pay for” when you book a low-fare carrier with a thin schedule. A good rule of thumb when booking low-fare carriers is to check and see how many flights per day it offers, then determine your risks.
A good example of this is the market between Atlanta and San Francisco. Delta offers seven nonstop flights per day on the route– with the lowest fares usually in the $350 range. United offers two nonstops at about the same price. Frontier, which frequently offers fares as low a $200 round trip, only offers one.
This is one way major carriers with robust schedules have a leg up on the low-fare competition with their new “basic economy fares.” During IROPS, a major carrier can usually offer several nonstop or one-stop alternatives to get you to your final destination a few hours late instead of a day or two late. A low-fare carrier can’t. And you get stuck.
Has this happened to you? How did it work out? Have you flown a low-fare carrier? Please leave your comments below.