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Stranded at the Airport: How to Cope Without Going Broke

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When your flight is cancelled and you’re left stranded at the airport, it can be anything from frustrating to extremely stressful, depending on your personal circumstances.  For the solo traveller it might be more of an inconvenience.  For the family with small children who are about to go their long awaited package holiday it can be very stressful. 

Air travel can run like clockwork but it’s a risky business.  Sometimes it can seem as if they systems used to manage the millions of passengers passing through an international airport every year have the integrity and strength of a house of cards.  We’ve all heard stories or even found ourselves stranded in the airport due to delays, cancellations, or other disruptions. This guide walks you through what to do if you’re stranded in an airport. It covers everything from knowing your rights to finding a place to sleep, and most importantly, how to manage all of these without going broke.

The Reality of Being Stranded at the Airport

Stranding can happen for various reasons—severe weather, technical problems, or even an overbooked flight. Despite the obvious inconvenience, it’s worth acknowledging that airports across the UK, the U.S and elsewhere internationally have systems in place to manage these disruptions. Let’s look at how you can navigate this situation without draining your wallet.

Why Do Flights Get Delayed or Cancelled?

In 2022 alone, thousands of flights were disrupted due to various factors. Understanding these reasons can make the experience less stressful and help you make informed decisions when stuck at the airport.  Here are the seven main causes for such delays and cancellations:

  1. Weather Conditions: Severe weather conditions like thunderstorms, heavy rain, fog, or snow can make flying risky or impossible. Airlines prioritize safety and may delay or cancel flights to wait for better conditions.
  2. Air Traffic Control (ATC) Restrictions or Faults: Congestion in the airspace or at airports can lead to delays. ATC manages traffic flow by sequencing takeoffs and landings, which sometimes necessitates delays.
  3. Mechanical Issues: Technical difficulties or maintenance requirements can cause delays or cancellations. Rigorous pre-flight checks might uncover problems that need immediate attention for the safety of the passengers.
  4. Crew Availability: There are strict regulations on how long a crew can work without rest. If a crew exceeds this time due to prior delays or other reasons, a flight can be delayed until a replacement crew is available.
  5. Security Concerns: Threats or security breaches can lead to delays or cancellations. This might include unattended luggage, security threats, or other issues that need to be resolved before safe travel can resume.
  6. Operational Issues: This category encompasses a variety of challenges, including baggage loading delays, fuelling issues, or quick aircraft turnarounds. Sometimes, airlines may also cancel flights due to low bookings.
  7. Industrial Action:  Strikes by any of the airport or airline staff often have adverse affects on the running of a busy airport, possibly leading to flight cancellations. 

UK NATS Outage August 2023

On the August Bank Holiday Monday in 2023, a technical glitch in the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) system forced the UK’s air traffic controllers to revert to manual operation for several hours.  It caused huge disruption, affecting both leisure and business travellers alike. With over 1,500 flights cancelled and many more delayed, airline passengers are understandably frustrated and stressed. 

Families eager to get away on their annual break wound up stranded at Gatwick, Heathrow, and all other airports in the UK.  Thousands of travelers, many already in the Departures hall, had to reclaim their bags and figure out how to get back to arrivals. Meanwhile, those expecting to land on time at their destination airport found themselves diverted elswhere.

Stranded At The Airport - Flight Cancellations

What Happens To Passengers When They Are Airside?

When a flight is cancelled and passengers are already airside, navigating the situation becomes a complex, yet standardized procedure for both airlines and airports. Here’s a general outline of what usually happens in such circumstances:

Notification

  • Public Announcement System: A message is generally broadcast over the airport’s public announcement system informing passengers of the cancellation.
  • Flight Information Display Screens: These screens will update to reflect the cancellation status.
  • Direct Communication: Some airlines may send messages via their mobile app or SMS.

Passenger Guidance

  • Departure Hall or Shopping Areas: Information desks and airline counters become the immediate point of contact. Staff guide passengers on the next steps.
  • Airport Lounges: Lounge staff will inform passengers and usually direct them to the nearest airline counter or provide specific instructions.
  • At the Gate: Gate agents will announce the cancellation and guide passengers on how to exit the airside area, often through the same route they came in, i.e., back through the departures hall and toward immigration if applicable.
  • Airport Apron or Bus: If passengers are on a bus on the tarmac, the bus will usually return them to the terminal building.
  • On the Aircraft: If passengers are already on the aircraft, they will be asked to disembark. Ground staff will guide them back to the terminal.

Luggage Reclaim

  • Passengers are often directed towards the baggage reclaim area to collect their checked luggage.
  • In some cases, if the airline can immediately reschedule, luggage may remain in the airline’s possession for the next flight.

Landside Guidance

After reclaiming baggage, passengers proceed to exit the airside area, passing through immigration if necessary. They can then approach airline counters, usually set up near the exits or in a designated area, for further information on rescheduling, refunds, or accommodations.

Customer Service

Most airlines have a set protocol for offering food vouchers, hotel accommodation, or immediate rescheduling for passengers affected by cancellations.

The aviation industry places great emphasis on the importance of customer experience, especially during disruptive events like cancellations. Though it may not seem that way at times, when you’re under a lot of stress and there’s seemingly no information, airlines and airports collaborate to make this process as smooth as possible, using all the resources at their disposal.

Know Your Rights: What Are You Entitled to?

It’s strongly advisable to know what you’re entitled to when your flight is delayed or canceled. While the government doesn’t require airlines to compensate passengers in all situations, some regulations govern this aspect. For instance, you might be entitled to a voucher for food, or even a hotel stay. Terms and conditions vary so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your airline’s rules before you travel.

Finding a Place to Sleep: Hotels vs. Airport Lounges

If you have to spend the night at the airport, you generally have two options: booking a hotel or staying in an airport lounge. Airport lounges offer comforts like recliners, showers, and healthy snacks, but usually at a premium price. Many travelers opt for a day pass to access these lounges. On the other hand, airlines will sometimes offer hotel vouchers in case of significant delays or cancellations. Weigh your options carefully; know your rights and what the airline offers before making a choice.

Stranded At The Airport - Lounge Access

No Room At The Inn

If there is a problem that has caused many cancellations, airport hotels will fill up fast and you may find that these hotels are not an option.  In that case, cast the net wider.  There will be hotels further away but still within a few miles of the airport.  All you will need to do then is find some transport to it.  Again, local taxis may be in high demand, so when you book your hotel, ask them if they can arrange a pick up for you. 

Booking a New Flight: Navigating the Airline Service Desk

Your next step should be booking another flight to get you where you need to go. You can often get rebooked onto another plane through the airline’s service desk in the airport, but with so much now being digitized, that may not be an option.  The airline may tell you to wait until you receive confirmation by text, email, or their app of which flight they have booked you on.   

Don’t Cancel Too Quickly!

You will have the option of accepting the next flight offered by the airline or cancelling your arrangements, but before you cancel, check that you don’t forfeit the cost of the flight or the whole holiday, if you booked a passage.  If the flight was cancelled through no fault of their own, airlines will offer alternatives, if they can.  If you decline this offer you may lose the right to any compensation. 

Coping with Costs: Don’t Let Financial Strain Add to Your Stress

Being stranded can be financially stressful, but it doesn’t have to lead you to go broke. If you’re offered a voucher, take it, but also check if you’re entitled to a full refund. Carry an empty water bottle to refill and save on the cost of airport water. Don’t let the expense add to your woes—there are ways to manage costs effectively.

Keeping Yourself Fed: Navigating Airport Food Options

Airport food can be pricey. However, taking your voucher to the airport’s food court can be a wise decision if you’re stranded. Consider carrying healthy snacks as a cost-effective and nutritious alternative to full meals at airport restaurants.

Staying Connected: Wi-Fi and Charging Stations

Most modern airports offer free Wi-Fi and charging stations to keep your devices fully charged. Staying connected allows you to keep yourself updated on new flight information and enables you to contact family or friends for emotional support.

The Role of Airport Staff During Flight Disruptions

Airport staff play a vital role during flight disruptions. They can guide you to the service desk, help you find a place to sleep, or even provide you with a cot if you decide to stay at the airport. Their assistance can be invaluable, so don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed, but they will be under extra pressure from a lot of frustrated and angry passengers, so be patient.

Always Carry These Essentials When Traveling

Consider carrying essentials like a good book, basic toiletries, and a change of clothes in your hand luggage. You can easily make up a simple amenity kit that you keep just for travel of any kind. Some pleasant moisturiser, a shave, and clean teeth can brighten your mood when you’re in airport limbo.

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Clear Toiletry Bag For Air Travel

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Claiming Compensation For Delayed or Cancelled Flights

there are several online services that specialize in helping airline passengers claim compensation for delayed or cancelled flights. These services are designed to make the process as hassle-free as possible, given that navigating the complex regulatory landscape can be daunting for individuals. Here are some prominent types of services that can assist passengers:

Claim Management Companies

  • AirHelp, Flightright, ClaimCompass: These are some of the well-known claim management companies. They handle all the legal proceedings on behalf of the passenger for a percentage of the compensation amount.
Delayed or cancelled flight?

AirHelp can get you up to $700 compensation per passenger, no matter the ticket price.
No win, no fee!

AirHelp and AirHelp Plus

AirHelp is a company that specializes in helping airline passengers claim compensation for delayed, cancelled, or overbooked flights. Established in 2013, the company has carved out a niche in the aviation industry as a consumer advocate, aiming to simplify what can be a complex process fraught with legal and administrative obstacles.

AirHelp Services

  • Claim Management: AirHelp manages the entire claim process, from initial filing to pursuing legal action if necessary.
  • Flight Data Analysis: Utilizes a wealth of data to quickly determine if a flight is eligible for compensation.
  • Legal Expertise: AirHelp is well-versed in EU Regulation 261/2004, as well as other international laws that might apply, ensuring passengers get what they are entitled to.
  • Multi-Language Support: Their customer support often covers multiple languages, making it accessible to a wide range of passengers.

AirHelp Plus

AirHelp Plus is a subscription service that offers enhanced benefits compared to the standard AirHelp service.

  • Preemptive Notifications: Subscribers may receive notifications about possible compensation claims, sometimes even before airlines announce delays or cancellations.
  • Priority Service: Claims made through AirHelp Plus often receive priority treatment, speeding up the process.
  • Reduced Fees: One of the significant benefits is a reduced fee on successful claims, meaning subscribers get to keep a larger portion of their compensation.
  • Multiple Claims: AirHelp Plus is particularly beneficial for frequent flyers, as it often allows them to file multiple claims under one subscription fee.

How it Works

  1. Eligibility Check: Passengers input their flight details on the AirHelp website or app to check for compensation eligibility.
  2. Submission: If eligible, passengers can then proceed to submit their claim, providing necessary documentation and details.
  3. Claim Pursuit: AirHelp handles all interactions with the airline, including legal proceedings if required.
  4. Compensation: Once successful, AirHelp transfers the compensation amount to the passenger, after deducting their fee.

The AirHelp platform and its subscription-based AirHelp Plus service offer passengers peace of mind and an efficient way to claim what they’re entitled to when flights don’t go as planned. By doing so, it not only upholds passenger rights but also maintains a standard within the aviation industry, compelling airlines to adhere to their commitments. This contributes positively to the reputation of air travel, reinforcing it as a reliable and efficient means of transport that is backed by robust customer protections.

Legal Advice Platforms

FreeAdvice, Avvo: These platforms can connect passengers with aviation attorneys who specialize in such cases, offering professional advice on how to proceed.

Mobile Apps

Service, Refund.me: These apps are designed to make filing a claim more accessible right from your mobile device. Some even integrate with your email to scan for eligible flights automatically.

Airline Websites

Direct Claims: Some airlines have their own systems in place for lodging compensation claims through their website, although this route may require more effort from the passenger’s side.

Travel Insurance Companies

Many travel insurance plans offer coverage for flight delays or cancellations, providing either a lump sum payment or reimbursement for expenses like meals and accommodation.

It’s important to note that different jurisdictions have different rules concerning flight delays and cancellations. For example:

  • EU Regulation 261/2004: In the European Union, this regulation stipulates the circumstances under which passengers are entitled to compensation.
  • U.S. Department of Transportation: In the United States, the rules are less favorable towards passengers, mainly offering compensation for involuntary bumping due to overbooking but not generally for delays or cancellations.
  • Canadian Transportation Agency’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations: In Canada, there are regulations in place that require airlines to provide compensation for situations within their control.
Stranded At The Airport - Check-In Desks

Stranded at the Airport with No Money: What Are Your Options? 

Finding yourself stranded at the airport is stressful enough, but what if you’re caught in this situation with no money? Here are some practical steps you can take:

Reach Out for Help

Your first step should be to contact friends or family who might be able to assist you financially. Many airports have Wi-Fi, so you can use apps like PayPal or Venmo to receive funds quickly.

Speak to Airline Staff

Approach the airline agents’ desk and explain your situation. Some airlines have policies for providing basic amenities to stranded passengers, even if you can’t afford to pay for them.

Utilize Airport Amenities

Many airports offer free amenities like water fountains and sometimes even lounges with comfortable seating. Make use of these to stay hydrated and rested.

Emergency Travel Funds

Some credit cards offer emergency cash advances for travel disruptions. If you have a credit card, contact your provider to see if this is an option for you.

Conclusion: Bullet Point Summary

  • Know your rights: Always be aware of what compensation you may be entitled to.
  • Food and water: Make use of vouchers and carry an empty bottle to save on costs.
  • Staying connected: Utilize free Wi-Fi and keep your devices charged.
  • Sleep options: Compare the benefits of airport lounges and hotels before making a decision.
  • Be prepared: Always carry essential items like toiletries, a change of clothes, and a good book.

Being stranded at an airport is no one’s idea of a good time, but with these tips and resources, you can make the experience as comfortable as possible without going broke. Safe travels!

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