Passengers racing to the gate is a fairly common scenario at airports—not to mention the climax in many Hollywood movies.
But what happens if you miss your flight in real life? Like so much else with travel, especially during an ongoing pandemic, it depends on several factors, including the reason (i.e., whether you slept in, the aircraft had a mechanical issue, or a weather-caused delay is to blame) and what kind of ticket you purchased.
The outcome also depends largely on a passenger’s approach and attitude, which can determine how much time, money, and hassle a missed flight may cost in the end. “If you’re proactive, smart and nice, you’ll be fine; a smile goes a long way,” says Willis Orlando, member operations specialist at airfare deal site Scott’s Cheap Flights. “If you’re not, you’re on the hook.”
Here’s a closer look at what happens if you miss your flight, as well as insider tips, tricks, and hacks on how to avoid this hassle—and those mad dashes through the airport—from the get-go.
The fine print and the flat tire rule
According to the terms and conditions outlined in carriers’ policies, which are known as the contract of carriage or conditions of carriage, airlines are not responsible for rebooking passengers who miss their flight because they overslept or didn’t have the correct entry documents for an international trip—a scenario that’s becoming more common as destinations like Europe start to open up. “The fact is that the airlines don’t care why you don’t show up at the gate,” says Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director for Elliott Advocacy, a Washington-D.C.-based consumer advocacy nonprofit. “There really is no differentiation between getting held up with TSA or sleeping too long. The passenger is responsible in both of those.”
However, most airlines have policies (occasionally written, often not), sometimes known as the “Flat Tire Rule,” which allow their agents some flexibility in such scenarios. Delta, for example, has a company-wide approach to “provide situational flexibility [and] leeway for their staff to do right by our customers,” a company representative said in an email. At American Airlines, travelers can be rebooked for no additional cost “if they arrive after the cut-off time for their flight check in but prior to 15 minutes after final departure,” according to a spokesperson.
“In reality, most airlines are not sitting there saying, ‘Document that you had a flat tire. Document that your baby got sick,’” Orlando explains. “It gives the gate agents that go-ahead to book you onto the next flight quickly, without charges.”
But the later passengers arrive at the airport after their scheduled departure, especially without attempting to reach the airline or rebook themselves, the higher the chances are they’ll have to shell out for another flight. You may avoid a change fee, which airlines have largely eliminated for classes except basic economy, but you could easily be paying for a pricey walk-up or day-of ticket.
Missed domestic flights
Weather is a big reason for missed flights in the United States, accounting for about 29 to 42 percent of delayed flights throughout 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But if a hurricane or winter storm wreaks havoc on your itinerary, airlines are not on the hook to provide hotel accommodations or food vouchers; they can, however, put you on the next available flight for no additional fees.
What about those maddening scenarios when you’ve been waiting at the gate for hours because of a weather delay, while flights all around you are taking off? Keep in mind that often, the weather may be affecting your incoming aircraft (though you can check the veracity of the airline’s claim via resources such as Flightaware.com and Aviationweather.gov).
In addition, websites like iFly.com and airports’ social media accounts provide up-to-date information about security lines and other potentially problematic issues, while programs like TSA PreCheck and Global Entry are invaluable in avoiding long security lines (and potentially missed flights).
Missed flights abroad
International travel has become infinitely more complicated, time-consuming, and stressful during the pandemic—perhaps even more so as many countries start to welcome overseas visitors. To avoid missing a flight, passengers need to make sure they have all required entry documents, COVID test certifications, and other necessary paperwork squared away well in advance.
“We can’t stress this enough: Do your research and prepare your documentation ahead of time,” Orlando says. “In Europe, the reports are coming out fast and furious about confusion and 8-hour wait times, because people are trying to put together multiple forms of documentation and rules are changing every day.”
Air passengers traveling in Europe have the benefit of EC 261, one of the world’s most comprehensive passenger-rights regulations. Anyone traveling out of a European airport is covered, and EC 261 enables passengers to receive compensation between 250 and 600 euros (approximately $300-700) for many types of flight disruptions.
The situation becomes more complex if your missed flight isn’t the airline’s fault, underscoring the importance of arriving early at the airport. (Pro tip: Remember that European airlines mark time with the 24-hour clock, so for a U.S.-based traveler, a departure time of 17:15 is easily—and incorrectly—misread as 7:15 instead of the correct equivalent of 5:15 p.m.)
You’ve missed your flight: what next?
Regardless of whether you, the airline, or weather is to blame, one of the most important things you can do when it looks like you’ll miss your flight is to contact the airline as soon as possible. If you fail to show up for your scheduled flight, you’ll fall into the “no show” category, meaning that the airline can cancel the rest of your itinerary, leaving you with minimal options for refunds or rebooking.
In the case of a long wait time to speak to an agent on the phone or at a help desk, try online: Many airlines’ apps allow passengers to easily rebook themselves. Whatever your strategy, “always be as proactive as you possibly can,” Orlando advises, and always be polite and appreciative when speaking to a rep, which can go a long way in achieving a favorable outcome.
How to avoid missing your flight
Starting with the planning stages of a trip, passengers can take several precautions to avoid missing a flight. Choose direct flights whenever possible, and watch out for budget deals that offer basic economy and multiple-carrier itineraries, both of which offer little protection for passengers. Low-cost carriers also tend to be quite strict with missed flights that are the fault of the passenger. “They generally treat it like a theater or movie ticket,” explains Chris Tomseth, a frequent traveler and co-founder of SkySquad, a service that provides travelers with personal assistance in airports. “If you bought a ticket and don’t show up on time, too bad.”
It bears repeating that best way to avoid missing your flight is to arrive at the airport well in advance, with plenty of extra time for scenarios like a no-show Uber or an insanely long TSA line. “Better to show up three hours before than a minute too late, and you’re not going anywhere, and it will be at your own expense to get on your next trip,” Couch-Friedman says.
Mark Chesnut, a New York City-based travel writer, consultant, and founder of LatinFlyer.com, a website focused on Latin American travel, works backward from his departure time, a strategy that is especially useful for early morning flights. He writes down his flight departure time, when he needs to arrive at the airport, leave his house, and, finally, wake up. “I keep that little list on a sticky note next to my bed, so if I wake up at any point during the night I can refer to it,” he explains. “It’s a simple thing to do, but it makes things easier when you plan the details ahead of time.”
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