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How to survive flight delays and cancellations without losing your mind

Passengers line-up during flight delays at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Tuesday January 7, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Passengers line-up during flight delays at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

Over 5,000 flights have been cancelled across North America on Tuesday, as blizzard-like conditions swipe the U.S. east coast and lap up southern Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Over 400 flight had been taken off the schedule at Toronto Pearson International Airport this morning alone.

READ MORE: Flight cancellations at Pearson airport as snowstorm hits GTA

The severe weather is spoiling March break departures for vacationers and derailing hundreds of business trips. But there are ways to minimize the hassle:

Before you leave the house

Weather is a major cause of flight delays and cancellations, so when you know a storm might be getting between you and your destination, there are steps you can take before heading to the airport.

  • Check the status of your flight. You can do so on the airline’s websites, on sites like FlightAware, or by calling the airline directly. Better still, include your email or phone number on your flight booking so you’ll get updates directly to your inbox.
  • Re-book your flight: If your flight is cancelled, airlines will often automatically re-book you on another flight. If they haven’t, or if the alternate flight does not work for you, the best course of action is to call their 1-800 number. If you’re travelling on a codeshare flight, however, you might have to contact the airline that is actually operating the flight, rather than the one through which you made your booking. If you booked through a travel agent, call them. Whatever you do, there’s usually no need to head to the airport, as “in many cases, the agents on the phone have more information than those in the airport,” according to travel insurance Travel Guard.
  • Charge your phone. If it looks like you are getting on a plane, make sure you’re going to be able to call airline reps and keep friends and family updated on your whereabouts, should you need to. You can bet all electrical outlets at the airport are going to be taken, so try to leave the house with a fully charged phone and use energy-saver settings to minimize the chances of running down your battery.
  • Bring a magazine or a book. See above. Spare your battery by opting for some offline entertainment.
  • Bring water and some food. Flight delays and cancellations can burn a hole in your pocket even if you don’t have to foot the cost of an unplanned hotel stay. Airport food and beverage are expensive and airlines don’t always offer meal vouchers, especially when flight disruptions are caused by weather. Even when you do get a voucher, it might not cover the cost of a full meal — or of several meals, if your stay at the airport is prolonged. So bring some sandwiches and snacks from home, as well as something to drink. While you won’t be able to walk past security with a bottle of water, you can use a water fountain on the other side of the security scanners for a refill.
  • Pack some toiletries in your hand-luggage. Airport mayhem means a higher chance that your checked luggage won’t show up at the other end of your trip when you do. So be sure to include toiletries, pyjamas, and a change of clothes in your hand-luggage to tie you over for 24 hours at least.

READ MORE: Flight report shows what happens if you don’t wear your seatbelt during turbulence on an airplane

How will your airline handle it?

Editor’s note: The following paragraph has been corrected to reflect the fact that the following information is based on airline policies that may go above and beyond the terms set out in each airline’s legally binding contract with its passengers, known as tariff. A list of air carrier tariffs is available here.

Here’s a look at what you can expect when flight disruptions are caused by weather:

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Air Canada:

Flight delay

  • If your flight is delayed by two hours or more, you can book another flight at no cost as long as the departure date is within 7 days of the original travel date. If you do so, you can also book a new return flight. You can also use your ticket as credit toward future travel on Air Canada. Or you can request a refund.
  • If the delay is eight hours or more, Air Canada will put you in touch with a hotel where you can get “valued customer rates.” You do not, however, get a free hotel stay.

Airplane stuck on the tarmac

  • After 60 minutes, “when it is deemed safe, practical and legal,” Air Canada will provide some food and beverages. You’ll also get to use your cell phone or computer, and stroll up and down the cabin, if you wish.
  • After 90 minutes, circumstances permitting, you can choose to disembark and board again when it is time to leave.

Flight cancellation

  • You’ll generally be re-booked on another Air Canada flight; on a flight with another carrier, if possible; or on a train, if there’s a Via Rail segment that matches your itinerary.
  • As with flight delays, you can also use your ticket as credit toward a different trip in the future.
  • Or you can ask for a refund.

READ MORE: Halifax woman suing Air Canada over ‘really upsetting’ experience

West Jet:

Flight delays and cancellations

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  • On domestic flights, the airline lists compensation like re-booking and meal and hotel vouchers, but only for disruptions it deems “controllable.” Major weather events don’t generally fall into that category.
  • On international flights, you get another flight to your destination at no additional cost, either with West Jet or with other carriers with which the airline has a commercial agreement. You can also request a refund within 30 days.

READ MORE: WestJet to pay for damage to Calgary home after ice from plane crashes through roof

Sunwing:

Flight delay

  • For a delay of between 4 and 6 hours, you get a voucher for a drink, meal or snack, depending on the time of day and available services at the airport.
  • If you’re stuck waiting between 6 and 11 hours, in addition to credit for food and drink, you get a travel voucher of $75 per person for a future trip with Sunwing or an excursion with tour operator Nexus Tours if you are headed to Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America.
  • For a delay of over 8 hours with an overnight stay, the airline will put you up at a hotel (subject to availability) and pay for a meal and round-trip airport transfers. They will also give you taxi vouchers if you’re close to home and would rather spend the night there.
  • For delays of 12 hours or more, you get the meal voucher, plus a $150 travel voucher toward a future trip. You can also ask for a full refund within 7 days.

Airplane stuck on the tarmac

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You get food and beverages, if it’s safe to serve them. After 90 minutes, you’re allowed to disembark and wait in the airport lounge until departure.

Flight cancellation

  • You can ask for a refund. The airline might also cover extra transportation costs for getting you back home, in certain circumstances.
  • Or you’ll get another ticket to your destination at no extra cost.

WATCH: Sunwing passengers on flight where pilot charged with alcohol impairment ‘surprised’ and ‘upset’

Click to play video 'Sunwing passengers on flight where pilot charged with alcohol impairment ‘surprised’ and ‘upset’' Sunwing passengers on flight where pilot charged with alcohol impairment ‘surprised’ and ‘upset’
Sunwing passengers on flight where pilot charged with alcohol impairment ‘surprised’ and ‘upset’

Porter:

  • The airline will re-book you at no cost on the next available Porter flight.
  • For delays of two or more hours, you can also get credit for a new Porter flight or a refund.

READ MORE: Transportation Safety Board can’t identify object after near ’mid-air collision’ of Porter flight

Filing a complaint

Editor’s note: The following paragraph has been modified to clarify that it is a presumed violation of the airline’s contract with passengers (so-called tariff) that generally forms the basis for a valid complaint to the Canadian Transportation Agency. 

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If you believe your airline hasn’t upheld its end of the bargain, as set out in its contract with passengers, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. Beware, however, that if you didn’t already try to settle the issue with the carrier, that will be the agency’s first step.

READ MORE: Airline complaints rise even though more flights arrive on time

If the CTA finds that the airline didn’t, in fact, fulfill its obligations, it can force it to compensate you for out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of the delay. That’s why it’s a good idea to collect receipts tracking expenses like meals, accommodation and unplanned travel costs.