Severe winter weather has wreaked havoc on communities across the United States this holiday season, complicating travel plans during what's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
Roughly 7 million people were expected to travel by plane for the holidays, according to AAA, and many have had their plans upended by flight cancellations or delays. U.S. airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 24, according to data from flight tracker FlightAware. Nearly 6,000 flights were canceled and 21,000 were delayed the day after Christmas, FlightWare data shows, and 4,600 have been canceled and 10,000 delayed on Dec. 27 as of 10:30 a.m. EST.
The majority of cancellations in the past week, nearly 73%, are by Southwest Airlines, and it accounts for 70% of all flights canceled nationwide on Dec. 26, according to FlightAware.
Southwest said in a statement Dec. 26 that it aims to decrease cancellations over the coming days.
"We’re working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us," a release on its website reads.
The busy travel season comes at a time when flights across the country are being delayed or canceled more than ever. A decade ago, roughly 79,000 flights were canceled by major U.S. airlines in 2012, according to aviation data compiled by Statista, a provider of market and consumer data. The number of cancellations peaked in 2020 at 281,000 primarily because of the pandemic, and 103,000 flights were canceled in 2021, the data shows.
CNBC global markets correspondent Seema Mody told TODAY in June that a surge in delays and cancellations can be due to strapped resources for airlines that are also dealing with a larger volume of travel.
Related: Tips to prepare for flight changes
Mody said that there's only so much passengers can do to avoid flight changes. Her biggest piece of advice is to make sure you know your flight schedule, as well as other flights that are available that day. It's also important to know what options airlines are lawfully bound to provide and how to access them. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
If my flight is canceled, am I entitled to a refund?
The short answer is yes. But accepting a rebooking option voids the refund that the airline would otherwise have to provide.
"But if that itinerary doesn’t work for you, by law you are entitled to a full refund," Mody said. Every airline has a different policy. For example, she said that JetBlue will provide a $50 credit if your flight is canceled within four hours of departure. "That goes up to $100 if your flight is canceled after the time of departure," she said.
Do delays come with some type of compensation?
There is no law requiring airlines to compensate passengers for delays, so most do not, according to Mody.
"The minute your flight is delayed, get in that line to talk to a flight agent, and at the same time, take out your phone and call the airline," she recommended. "The phone agent can be even more helpful than the person at the airport."
When delays happen after boarding is completed, Mody said guidelines stipulate that airlines can keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for a maximum of three hours.
"But within two hours, you do have a right to food, water and access to the bathroom," she said.
What do I do if my flight is overbooked and I get involuntarily rebooked?
Moody said that if you're involuntarily unbooked from a flight, "there’s significant compensation."
For example, if the next flight you’re rebooked on is within one to two hours after your initial flight, "we’re talking 200% of a one-way fare that’s typically capped at around $775," she said. "Over two hours, 400% of a one-way ticket, usually around $1,500, is the cap."
What if my luggage is lost?
Mody said that by law, airlines are required to reimburse passengers if their luggage is lost up to a maximum of $3,800 for domestic trips.
She recommends taking a photo of the contents inside your luggage once you're packed so you can remember what's inside. "Often the airlines will require proof, so it’s good to just make sure you know," she said.
Mody said another tip is to get an Apple AirTag or tracking device.
"Drop it in that luggage," she said. "You can track your suitcase in real time. Often what happens is the airline can’t locate your bag, but if you can help them find it, then your success rate goes up."
What other compensation am I entitled to?
The U.S. Department of Transportation clearly states the circumstances in which passengers are entitled to refunds. That includes canceled flights, significant schedule changes that the passenger does not agree to, downgrading to an economy or lower class, baggage fees associated with lost luggage, or an optional service, like Wi-Fi or seat upgrades, that the airline was ultimately unable to provide.