What airlines owe you if you cancel your flight

Passengers fly through Miami International Airport on December 28, 2021 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Riddell | Getty Images

Travel in 2021 ended on a stressful note for thousands thanks to the omicron. The fast-spreading coronavirus variant has led to high infection rates around the world, including among airline employees.

US airlines canceled more than 10,000 flights over the year-end holiday period as pilots, assorted flight attendants and hosts and bad weather hit hubs like Seattle and Atlanta. Thousands of flights were delayed.

It’s a small percentage of overall schedules — about 5%, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware — but it has disrupted the plans of tens of thousands of travelers during what airline executives have predicted will be its busiest time since the pandemic began. Since December 23, more than 15.6 million people have passed through TSA checkpoints at airports, nearly double the number a year ago.

In contrast to the meltdowns in Spirit, American and the Southwest in the summer and fall, the recent wave of disruption has spread among several airlines, including Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska and SkyWest.

Here’s what you need to know:


If your airline cancels your flight and you choose not to take an alternative flight, they owe you a refund under federal law. Airlines can offer credit with the airline, but travelers can request a full refund. This is the case regardless of the reason for the cancellation: bad weather, staffing problems, or other issues, according to the Department of Transportation.

“You can always get your money back if they can’t accommodate you, but that doesn’t bring you home,” said Brett Snyder, who runs travel concierge service and travel website Cranky Flier.

The Department of Transportation also says travelers are entitled to a refund if their flight is significantly delayed, though it doesn’t specify what falls into this category.

“Whether you qualify for a refund depends on many factors — including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances,” she says on her website. “The Department of Transportation determines whether you are entitled to a refund after significant delay on a case-by-case basis.”


Airlines try to cancel flights long before passengers arrive at the airport so travelers can make alternative plans, preferably through self-service platforms on their apps or websites, and don’t overburden ticket counters. For example, JetBlue is cutting about 1,280 flights from its schedule through January 13, before another expected increase in the number of omicron infections among employees.

“The worst kind of cancellation, as we all know, is cancellation that happens at the airport,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told CNBC Thursday.

Wait times on airline customer service phone lines during the turmoil can sometimes be hours, although some carriers, such as Delta, will call you back when it’s your turn. The airlines also offer chat services and often reply on Twitter.

Snyder recommends trying all available channels when you have backups.

Passenger cancellation

As omicron continues to spread, some travelers may choose to postpone travel or may test positive and not be able to reach their destination if they are traveling abroad. Several countries have tightened travel restrictions since the omicron variant was discovered in late November. The US, for example, now requires all incoming travelers, including US citizens, to test negative for Covid within one day of departure.

On Thursday, the US State Department warned US citizens against international travel, as a positive test in another country could mean travelers must quarantine abroad, at their own expense, until they test negative.

The Foreign Ministry added that “foreign governments in any country may apply restrictions without prior notice.”

Large US airlines such as Delta, United and American have ditched exorbitant change fees for regular economy class tickets and above, both for international and domestic flights. Passengers are still responsible for any price difference. Airlines have largely ended pandemic-era fee waivers for basic, non-refundable economy tickets, but travelers should check with their airline.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo