What to do if your flight has been canceled

Early January saw Southwest Airlines cutting two-thirds of its flights following an operational meltdown stemming from an arctic storm. A canceled flight often leaves passengers in a conundrum over whether to request a refund or sit and wait for the airline to put them on the next available flight.

If you’re one of the thousands of inconvenienced flyers, here’s what you need to ask about refunds, hotel rooms, meals and taxis.

Should I cancel my flight?

Canceling a reservation and seeking a refund can be a tricky proposition for passengers who may have to gamble on taking their business elsewhere or hoping the airline can accommodate them.

“If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation — even for non-refundable tickets,” the U.S. Department of Transportation’s air passenger refund page says. That even applies for bag fees.

Both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have enacted travel advisories for the winter storm that let passengers rebook tickets to another nearby date free of charge. In American’s case, that applies to flights in the same cabin class.

It may appear that canceling a ticket for a refund is a better option, except that ticket prices get more expensive for same-day or next-day travel and seats on planes are in short supply with so many people being rebooked the last few days.

I still want a refund. Can I get one?

Federal law entitles airline passengers to a refund if a flight is canceled for any reason, even weather.

But weather and mechanical issues don’t qualify for federal refunds for delays. And when staffing issues are caused by weather delays, the delays don’t trigger automatic refunds either. The same goes for compensation for hotels, meals and transportation.

“Some problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control,” the website for the U.S. Department of Transportation says.

American does provide compensation such as hotels for “cancellations or delays that were caused by controllable issues” such as maintenance problems, American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Koos said in August. It also offers meal vouchers for non-weather-related delays of more than three hours.

Getting a refund from an airline during periods of severe weather and subsequent disruptions is difficult, Paul Hudson, executive director of passenger advocacy group FlyersRights said in August.

“The airlines always want to blame everything on the weather,” Hudson said. “If they blame it on the weather, they don’t have to be responsible for refunds or accommodations if people are stranded.”

Passengers asking for refunds may also be at the mercy of airlines and customer service call centers overwhelmed with requests.

Where can I find out the rules for flying?

All U.S. airlines outline the rules for refunds, delays and cancellations, overbooking and other customer issues on their websites. These “contracts of carriage” or “conditions of carriage” should outline what happens in the event of a delay.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines’ rules say, “If you decide not to fly because your flight was delayed or canceled, we’ll refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees.”

Dallas-based Southwest, which flies out of Dallas Love Field, has similar rules for delays, cancellations and diverted flights.

But Hudson also says that in the event of delays, passengers can try taking their tickets to another carrier, which will sometimes honor the ticket and then charge the other airline later. However, that usually doesn’t work with ultra-low-cost carriers such as Frontier and Spirit.