How to Solve Tricky Airline Customer Service Situations

U.S. News & World Report

How to Solve Tricky Airline Customer Service Situations

As any frequent flyer knows, an unexpected delay or detour can spoil travel plans. From being stalled in a foreign city because of a snowstorm to getting stranded at the airport due to a mechanical issue, there are some disruptions that are beyond our control. But for those of us planning to fly during the holidays — when our tolerance for tightly packed terminals and trip interruptions is tested — a flurry of questions arise as we brace ourselves for tough scenarios. If you miss your flight, what's the best way to reroute quickly? When bad weather strikes, what can you expect from your carrier? And under what circumstances is your airline required to compensate you or provide you with a meal voucher or a hotel room?

Whether you're preparing for a short trip or a long holiday break, knowing the rules and strategizing accordingly can help you avoid major hassles and headaches, not to mention hefty change fees. With some guidance from Airfarewatchdog creator George Hobica and consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott, we've come up with eight practical tips for handling tricky situations and winging it when things don't go your way. 

One way to prevent an unpleasant airport experience and mitigate your chances of incurring a steep rebooking fee is to get to the airport at least an hour before domestic flights and two hours before international plane rides. "Careful travelers add a half hour beyond that around the holidays," according to Elliott. Apart from sparing yourself the hassle of worrying about thick crowds and lengthy security lines, you'll also give yourself the leeway to catch an earlier flight if the threat of bad weather may impact your original flight route. Though each airline has the right to charge you a fee for changing your ticket (even if you exchange your ticket for a seat on a flight scheduled for the same day), most carriers will waive the fee if you paid for a refundable ticket. Even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket, it's still worthwhile to check if your carrier will waive the fee and let you fly standby. If you have access to an airport lounge, Hobica insists there's an even greater incentive to check in early. Executive lounges provide better access to airport employees rather than a jam-packed customer service counter, allowing you to change your reservation quickly if you're in a bind. Another bonus: Most lounges provide free Wi-Fi access, so you can stay connected with up-to-the-minute flight and weather information while you wait for assistance.

What if a car wreck or a snowstorm prevents you from getting to the airport on time? Thanks to what is known as the "flat tire" rule or the "two hour" rule, you may be able to fly standby and avoid penalty fees if you arrive within two hours of your original departure time. Though this rule varies between airlines (US Airways and Southwest tend to adhere to this policy while other carriers, like Spirit, do not) Elliott recommends calling the airline as soon as you know you're running late. By notifying the airline, Elliott says that you'll allow the carrier to release your seat and better your chances of dodging a walk-up fare when you do reach the airport. Also be sure to mention if your a member of the airline's loyalty progr