If the click of the public announcement system in the boarding area is all it takes to make your heart skip a beat, maybe you’re susceptible to this summer’s travel epidemic: delay rage.
Have you felt it? A recent survey by TripIt of air travelers found that more than a third (36%) had experienced a delay of an hour or more, and 10% had a flight canceled.
Evidence of delay rage seems to be everywhere. It’s passengers tackling agents, destroying ticket counters, and tussling with employees. It seems as if a fight could break out before every flight – and sometimes, it does.
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“Air travel these days can stir up a storm of emotions,” Logan Jones, a New York psychologist, said. “The frustration of a disrupted schedule, the anxiety of a missed connection, the dread of an endless wait – these can combine to ignite flames of anger in all of us.”
Fortunately, there’s a fix for delay rage. You need to understand your rights as a passenger. (Your airline might claim you have none, but that’s wrong.) There are a few coping mechanisms you can use. But also, there’s a bigger fix that could help address the most vexing flight delays.
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What are your passenger rights during a flight delay?
The problem: If an airline delays your domestic flight, it owes you practically nothing.
There’s no requirement that an airline keep to its timetable in the U.S. For longer delays, the airline must offer a full refund or it can rebook you on a future flight. But if you want compensation for your delay, or if you want the airline to book you on another airline, you’re probably out of luck. And passengers find that infuriating.
And that brings me to the most important advice for anyone who wants to avoid delay rage this summer: Know before you go.
“Familiarize yourself with your rights as an airline passenger and review the airline’s compensation policy for canceled flights,” said Bob Bacheler, managing director of a medical transport service.
One of the best resources for your rights in case of a delay caused by something that is within the airline’s control is the Department of Transportation’s airline customer service dashboard. For flights to or from Europe, you may be eligible for additional compensation under EC 261, the European airline consumer protections. I have more information on your consumer rights in my free guide to canceled or delayed flights.
But in-the-know passengers always turn to their airline’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between them and the airline. It describes, in painstaking legalese, what the airline will do in the event of a delay. Airlines usually differentiate between a delay caused by something within their control, like a mechanical problem, and an event outside of their control, like weather.
If the delay is caused by an outside event, the airline doesn’t have to offer you overnight accommodations, meal vouchers or transportation to your hotel – and often it doesn’t.
How do you deal with delay rage?
You don’t have to be a victim of delay rage. Here’s what psychologists recommend:
- Take a deep breath. Anger and aggression are normal, said Bruce Friedman, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech. “The best thing to do first then is to elicit the opposite response – relaxation,” he said. You remember what your mother told you about counting to 10? It works in this situation. Take some time before you react.
- Get real. Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, said you should take inventory of the situation. “We all have to have more reasonable expectations about our flying experience,” he added. If there’s a weather delay, you probably should not expect to reach your destination for a while. Reframing your expectations can help.
- Put the delay into perspective. “Simply stopping to remind ourselves that though this is a difficulty, it is not the end of the world, and it might be no one’s fault,” said Gail Sahar, a professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, whose area of research includes the psychology of blame.
Most importantly, don’t lash out at airline employees. They are just the messenger. If you start screaming at them, you may be arrested or banned for life from flying that airline.
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How to handle a delay when it happens this summer
Instead of getting mad like everyone else this summer, there are steps you can take to get to your destination.
First, don’t wait for someone to solve the problem for you.
“As soon as you find out about the cancellation, get in line at the customer service desk or reach out to them over the phone,” advised Pallavi Sadekar, head of operations at VisitorGuard.com. At the same time, try contacting the airline through social media or on its app. The sooner you let an airline know that you’re waiting to get to your destination, the better your chances of getting rebooked on a new flight.
Also, get creative. That’s the advice of Karen Villano, a gate agent for a major airline. “Always try to go standby on another flight,” she advised. (Pro tip: Ask to “be protected” on an alternate flight.) “You might get on, especially if it is due to weather. Many other travelers may not make it to the hub, and flights go out with empty seats.”
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you booked through an online travel agency like Expedia, call the company and ask for help. If you bought your tickets through a human travel advisor, you have an ally on your side who can help you get through a delay. And don’t leave home without travel insurance this summer. If you have coverage, you can get reimbursed for your hotel and other expenses related to your delay.
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What’s the fix for delay rage?
You probably expect me to say that being level-headed and polite is the cure for delay rage. It helps, but it won’t fix it.
Airline passengers have been polite enough, thank you very much. They gritted their teeth during the pandemic while airlines canceled flights, pocketed billions of taxpayer dollars and then tried to keep the money passengers spent on tickets. Now airlines are serving up another summer filled with delays and substandard service.
The solution is to send a firm message to airlines that experience one delay after another: No more.
“Rage will only subside when passengers are treated decently,” said William McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project.
He says it’s time for the government to regulate customer service in a meaningful way, which could include European-style requirements to compensate passengers during for delays.
He makes a valid point. Maybe you can’t get even with an airline at the ticket counter. But you can at the ballot box, by voting for representatives who will finally hold airlines accountable.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at email@example.com.