Anatomy Of A Delay: How To React To Travel Disruptions

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

All the people who really need a life cool kids are going back and forth to Beijing these days. American’s 777s are notoriously unreliable as of late, so it’s hardly surprising that these runs didn’t go entirely as planned. Social media has been full of people rebooking their flights, and I haven’t spoken with anyone yet who had seamless travels in both directions.

Entertaining as it might be to read about someone else’s travels, the real value here is in learning how to handle delays and cancelations when they happen to you. So I thought it might be helpful to break down the process I go through when dealing with a flight delay.

Fortunately (I guess?) the Beijing trips provided lots of opportunities for live examples, so we can break this down in detail.

1. Track your flights

Everyone do me a favor here. Open a new browser tab, or grab your phone.

Open Google.

Type in an airline code (like UA for United, or DL for Delta), followed by a flight number.

Boom! You’re tracking a flight.


It’s seriously that easy nowadays. I don’t know why more people don’t do this. Of course you can get more advanced, and it’s helpful to track your inbound flight as well. The main thing is don’t rely on notifications from the airline. Once the delay has posted to the departures board you have the same knowledge as everyone else, which doesn’t help with avoiding queues.

Going back to our trip, the night before our return from Beijing I was checking the status of our flights. While our flight was showing an on-time departure at 10:10AM, the inbound flight from Chicago had a spectacularly tardy 14+ hour delay:


Needless to say, a negative six minute turn ain’t happening, which leads us to the next phase of handling flight delays —

2. Know your worst case

To help with the timeline, our flights back from Beijing were on Saturday morning. I had a separate ticket back to San Diego Saturday night, while Ben had a direct turn back to Beijing on Sunday.

So we were highly motivated to get to DCA on Saturday afternoon, but as a backup, the very first thing I did was to look at flights to San Diego on Sunday morning.


With flight loads in hand, I then made a call to the AAdvantage Executive Platinum line.

Me: Hello! I am scheduled on the 186 tomorrow, and it looks like it’s going to be quite late.
Agent: Hmmm, I have that as on-time.
Me: Can you look at 187? Looks like it just posted a 14 hour delay.
Agent: Oh heavens, that’s not good.
Me: Indeed! So I have a flight out of DC Saturday afternoon on a separate PNR [ ]. Ideally I’ll still make those flights, but just in case, can you protect me on the 5:30AM flight Sunday morning?
Agent: Absolutely, give me just a moment to do that.

With that out of the way, we started looking at alternative options out of Beijing. American had started operating their Dallas > Beijing route just a few days prior, and that flight was wide open:


So we had our very worst case — if our flight to Chicago was delayed further, we would move to the Dallas flight. It would suck, absolutely, but it was an option.

3. Have a plan (and communicate it)

Grateful to have checked our flight status the night before, we didn’t leave the hotel at 6:30AM, and were instead enjoying the dessert breakfast buffet at the W when American finally posted the delay.


As a bonus, American had proactively protected us on a later flight from Chicago. Yay!

Of course, four hours in O’Hare isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, particularly not Our Hero’s. A quick look at ExpertFlyer showed there was an earlier flight out of Chicago, and it was wide open:



Ben: So here’s the plan. If we push on time, we Tweet AA and ask them to protect us on the 2:26PM
Me: That’s not a legal connection
Ben: We’ll ask nicely and promise to run
Me: If they say no?
Ben: We run anyway, and ask at the gate

And sure enough, as we boarded the plane in Beijing, that’s what he did:


An earlier flight to DC still wouldn’t keep me from missing my flight to San Diego, but it would make it possible to get home later that evening, rather than Sunday:


And since I had to talk to the AA folks on Twitter anyway…


So we were fairly committed to making that flight. Missing from Ben’s trip report was the replay of him announcing our projected arrival time and odds of making the earlier flight approximately every seven minutes for the entire flight kill me now.

We reached our gate in Chicago at 1:29PM (the furthest gate from customs, of course), and without running we cleared immigration and security and arrived at the next gate before they even started boarding.

Good thing, since the flight left early!

The rest of the day was as uneventful as domestic travel gets. We flew to DC, I flew back to Chicago, and then to San Diego. Essentially a textbook day in terms of rebooking flights.

4. Stay ahead of the crowd

This is key, and what made our travel day go relatively smoothly. Had we not been actively managing our flights, our day might have looked like this:

  • Leave hotel before 7AM
  • Arrive at airport to discover flight is delayed until 1:40PM
  • Take delayed flight, arriving in Chicago three and a half hours late
  • Likely miss connection, go to desk to be rebooked
  • Queue
  • Probably queue some more
  • Discover all seats on the later flights have been taken by those in the front of the line
  • Standby
  • Not clear
  • Queue for a hotel voucher
  • Spend the night in Chicago
  • Take first confirmed flight to DC in the morning (meaning I would have even missed my backup flight to San Diego, and Ben would have missed his flight to Dallas)
  • Spend all day trying to untangle the mess of reservations
  • Cry

So in comparison, it’s easy to see how arming yourself with a bit of knowledge and proactively communicating with the airline can change your entire travel experience.

Ultimately it’s the difference between waiting to be told where to go, or controlling your own destiny.

And no one at the airline will ever care as much about your travel plans as you do.

What is your approach during delays? Anything you would have done differently?

  1. @ Dave — Oh, that’s an excellent question, thanks!

    American (and some other carriers, but I’ve only personally done this on American), will basically hold a seat for you on another flight if there are travel disruptions. So you can still be confirmed on a 5PM flight, but have space saved for you “just in case” on the 7PM.

    Does that make sense?

  2. @Tiffany this was excellent info! I always try and be proactive, but you literally doing the play-by-play of the process is so very helpful. Thanks so much for posting this!

  3. Three other points. First, don’t check bags; second, elite status matters; and third, so does the Admirals Club.

  4. Very useful in post. I’m curious about tracking inbound flights. In a place like Beijing where American probably only has a couple of pieces of equipment coming in daily it’s pretty straightforward but is this something you can do easily for domestic flights? So if you were hypothetically flying DFW-DCA, would you know which incoming flight would affect your outbound? Thanks.

  5. @ Gaurav — Yep, very easily done for domestic flights as well. American actually has a link for your inbound flight status (though that can of course change). Let me see if I can put together a post on that, great idea!

  6. Hi,

    How are you directly communicating with AA? Is this via twitter on wifi on the plane? How do they know your full name and frequent flier number?

    Sorry, a little new to all of this.

    Thanks, Robert

  7. @Robert — not sure about AA, but in Delta account settings you can add a Twitter username. FWIW, Delta’s policy seems more lax; I’ve been able to change other people’s reservations through my own Twitter account.

  8. @ Robert — We were using direct messages on Twitter, and gave them the PNRs in both cases (I just blacked them out in the screenshots). I’ve given them my other info in the past, and they can match the name on my Twitter account to my EXP profile. It’s like how when you call from your main phone number they already know it’s you — technology is amazing.

  9. I had seamless travel in both directions to/from Beijing, except for my final positioning flight from DCA after the whole discount itinerary was finished. That’s pretty good!

  10. Also, maybe a stupid question, but couldn’t you have just booked a separate ORD-SAN in the first place, and skipped the ORD-DCA leg, to save tons of time?

  11. Tiffany or Ben, could one of you write a “primer” on Twitter communication with AA, UA, DL, WN, US, other airlines? For example, what are their Twitter addresses? How do you link your FF# and status with your Twitter account? How do you “direct message” them? What else is needed for efficient, seamless communication and resolution of issues? (Clearly a big knowledge gap I need to fix.)

  12. @ Mike — Sure, but I wasn’t overly concerned about the time. Tickets from DCA were also significantly less expensive (like half), and since I can work from anywhere there’s not a huge opportunity cost to the extra two segments.

  13. Tiffany — Great post! I especially appreciated this line at the end:

    “And no one at the airline will ever care as much about your travel plans as you do.”

    That’s great advice in so many different domains. I recently published a book and, while the publisher’s marketing efforts are terrific and much appreciated, the same basic idea applies — no one cares about marketing my book as much as I do.

  14. Hey Tiffany, this is a really helpful post, I really appreciate it! I do have one question about the flight changes you and Ben requested and got: Are these flight changes available to you because you are both EXPs with AA, and that is one of the benefits of being an EXP? In other words, if I was a Platinum, Gold, or even a none member, would it be as flexible (and free) for me to change the flights just because my flight is delayed? Thanks!

  15. I fly UA more often than AA, but one of the things I really like about AA is how they handle flight disruptions. When you have disruptions your standby priority goes to the top of the list – ahead of even Executive Platinums. Have no status with them, but have experienced a couple of instances where I was connecting from A to C via B, flight from A to B was delayed, I was then able to standby with highest priority for a nonstop from A to C, and ended up getting to my destination earlier than originally scheduled!

  16. Tiffany, what are YOUR favorite travel apps?

    Did you and Ben break down and get T-Mobile iPhones for their international features?

  17. Never mind.. I see your reply for Mike.
    Was reading the linked posts and didnt submit question fast enough.

  18. @ Anthony — This is pretty common when flights are delayed for operational reasons. It can be different when the delays are caused by weather, but in general the airline is still motivated to get you to your original destination, so if you kindly propose a reasonable alternative, they typically go for it, in my experience.

    We may have gotten faster responses because we were EXPs on paid business class fares, but the general rules are the same for everyone in this case. Great question!

  19. @ Louis — I honestly don’t use many/any travel apps, other than the airline or hotel-specific ones. So…can I pick Instagram as an option? 😉

    And haven’t switched to T-Mobile (though trying to talk Ben into it), because the MiFi/SIM setup is working really well for me.

  20. @ ABe — No worries! If I’d skipped the DCA-ORD segment, the ORD-SAN wouldn’t have been valid. Though I could probably have found someone at the Admiral’s Club who would reissue the ticket without that segment, had it come down to that.

  21. First time poster; long time reader. But I needed to post to say that this was such a wonderfully written and informative post. Much appreciated!

  22. Tiffany – FYI – I’ve stayed away from T-Mobile because of gaps in their domestic coverage (example – Western Massachusetts, where I frequently travel and need cell service). (I’m even more opinionated on cell phone carriers than I am on airlines. 🙂

  23. Ditto on @UAPhil’s request for a Twitter primer. I am a total Twitter-Luddite and I’d really like to change my ways.

  24. And, after the airline primer, a quick hotel primer would also be much appreciated. (I’ve seen reports of the success of Lucky’s tweets to the SPG team getting recalcitrant properties to play by the rules; need to know how to do the same.)

  25. The inbound flight may be delayed by 14 hours, but how do you know that AA won’t substitute another aircraft for your outgoing flite and thus depart on time?

  26. @ UAPhil — Great data point, thanks! I’ll be sure to check in before I make any changes 😉

  27. @ jb — Well, in this case it’s easy, as there literally isn’t another aircraft available out of Beijing. That can be an issue out of hubs though.

  28. I think the best advice here is figuring out exactly what you want and asking for it politely and calmly. Especially when there are systemic delays, reservations agents are going to be highly stressed and cannot spend a lot of time searching for better options than the one the system has provided for you. If you go in with a backup flight in mind and ask for it, you are saving them a lot of time and effort and they are going to be much more willing to get you what you want/need.

    I remember one time I was trying to get back to NYC from Houston on DL after a major crippling storm shutdown the NY region and prevented a lot of DL planes from ever getting to the Houston area the previous night. I came in armed with a flight that had available seats when I called, but availability was literally changing by the second as everyone from the previous day was getting rebooked. Having multiple tabs open with all the possible routings from Houston to NYC saved me that morning because I was able to talk the agent through what I needed feeding her every possible flight number so she could grab seats as quickly as possible, even just grabbing me a seat out of HOU to ATL without any open connecting seats in the hopes that by the time she was done with that, ATL-NYC availability would have changed again. Thankfully a seat popped on a flight that would have given me an 8 hour connection time in ATL, and as the day went on I was able to standby and get on an ATL-NYC flight departing after only 2 hours after I arrived in ATL. I don’t think she would have been as willing to work with me and deal with the constantly changing seat availability had I not opened our conversation on a positive and helpful note.

  29. Thanks for the great post! Valuable info for the everyday traveler (regardless if you are showering in EK A380 or slumming it on WN), well-organized, and well-written.

  30. BTW what software are you using that shows all the buckets? I’m using the KVS Tools mobile version, which is OK but a little show at times.

  31. @ chasgoose — Indeed. Amazes me that people yell at gate agents and think that’s going to be helpful.

  32. Tiffany: For your PEK-ORD flight checking, you probably knew that there is only one flight daily from ORD-PEK.
    However, at a domestic hub, how do I check on the inbound flight that a carrier will use?

  33. Without a doubt Tiffany, this has been the best post on OMaaT in recent history. A revealing and highly informative post of relevance to all flyers. Bravo Zulu.

  34. Tiffany – how helpful would you say airline club agents tend to be in helping to deal with flight disruptions compared to airline phone agents? I realize this will vary significantly between individual agents and one’s status level (i.e. being able to call a status phone line vs. the general phone line), but wasn’t sure if one has tended to be more helpful than the other in your experience. Do you think it would ever be worth buying a day pass to an airline club to receive help from the club agents rather than calling the airline?

  35. @ Hoship — There are a few ways, let me see if I can put a post together with more details.

  36. @ Michael C — Great question, and I really think it does depend. Sometimes I’ve been able to get through on the phone even faster than I can by waiting for an agent.

    If things are really bad it might be worthwhile, but that can depend on the airport as well. And keep in mind there are many free ways to access airport lounges through credit cards these days.

  37. I made the 2:26 ORD-DCA flight with time to spare after a 1:52 arrival on a delayed flight from PEK.

  38. Could you ask to combine the itineraries and just fly PEK-ORD-SAN. This would drop the ORD-DCA and DCA-ORD legs altogether? It seems like this would be in AA’s benefit since you have already paid for the ORD-DCA and back legs and you won’t be taking up a seat. I’ve always heard about being able to ask for the original routing credit in the case if IRROPS if you are concerned about the miles.

  39. Excellent post, Tiffany, thanks!

    One small point – I’ve had Google’s flight tracking be very, very wrong on multiple occasions. It seems to have a strong tendency to think that flights are proceeding normally even if they’re; I once was getting ready to pick up my girlfriend at the airport only to have her text me that her flight was turning off the tarmac back to the gate at the departing airport. I had a similar scenario picking up a friend who was texting me with the airplane door open while Google stated he was 20 minutes from landing. (First flight was American, early part of 2014; second flight was JetBlue a month or two ago, so it’s not related to the airline and isn’t something they’ve fixed.)

    I’ve found FlightAware to generally be the most accurate in terms of current status, so typically I’ll search the flight number, skip over the useless Google data, and click on the FlightAware link – it’s usually the first one. It also has a few other niceties – historical data right there about how the flight actually has performed over the last week or two, and they often (but not always) have a link to the inbound flight for tracking.

    It’s a shame, because it is so ridiculously convenient, but I genuinely don’t trust Google’s flight data anymore. Maybe someday they’ll figure out what the problem is and tweak it…

  40. Am I reading this right? At ORD you arrived at T5, went through customs, transferred to T3, got re-screened, and walked to K10 … all in less than an hour?? (faint!) This is what travel experience does to you. It makes you gutsy, but your familiarity with ORD made you informed-gutsy. Is that one of your more daring connections or have you done plenty of tighter ones?

  41. I like to think I am proactive, but I would have never gone that deep into it. Then again, I live in Arlington about 5 minutes from DCA.

    Also, all flights on my two trips to and from Beijing were perfectly on time, so YMMV.

  42. @ Tom — In theory, and I’m sure I could have found an agent in an Admiral’s Club to do that for me. Seemed a little complicated to handle over Twitter, but that was my backup plan if we hadn’t made the 2:26PM flight.

  43. @ tara — Yep, it took us about 25 minutes, and much to a certain someone’s chagrin we weren’t going particularly quickly. We also have Global Entry and PreCheck, and weren’t traveling with checked baggage or kids.

    But this wasn’t terribly gutsy, given that we still technically had tickets on the 6PM flight. So if we hadn’t made the flight, we would have just waited around the airport for a bit longer.

  44. sometimes the best planner still can’t avoid nightmares. I had always wanted to fly on SQ’s all business class nonstop from the US to Singapore and before they phased out the flight, managed to grab a seat using Lifemiles. To position to LAX I was on United from ORD to IAH then to LAX, with ORD to IAH on a 787. The plane went technical while we were on the tarmac. I ended up landing in LAX an hour after the SQ flight took off, and of course United wasn’t going to protect me on a separate PNR. They did issue me a letter to take to SQ to beg them to let me on a later flight but I couldn’t even find an SQ rep that night at LAX. Lesson learned is to build in LONG connections when traveling on separate itineraries unless you’re on AA. I had 5 hours built in, but it wasn’t enough.

  45. Great post Tiffany! I always enjoyed your writings, and this is exceptional.

    A few questions:
    1. What happens if these tickets are redemption tickets, and the operating carrier is different from the issuing carrier?

    2. Will “protection” be possible still, if based on point 1?

    3. I understand that operating carrier “takes control” of the ticket under 24 hrs to departure. How much control do they have? Do we still need to contact the issuing carrier if they change the flight(s)?

    4. I suppose if under 24 hrs, the operating carrier which took control, should be the one resolving the problems. Who should be contacted? Airport staff of operating carrier only? Or is it possible that we can reach the operating carrier’s hotline as well and how likely will they be able to help?

    5. How often will the operating carrier actually help to resolve these, instead of pushing it back to the issuing carrier? (based on your / Omaat’s combined experience?)

    6. If this is an award ticket (and make it more complicated, like in pt 1, different issuing and operating carriers), will agents always insist that they can only rebook you into “award class”, rather than revenue class, in irrops? How far can we stretch them to resolve it? (revenue class of same operating carrier in same cabin only? revenue class of any other open flights in same cabin, if available? And when can we start to ask for meal vouchers & when for accommodation +/- transfer to accommodation? I have read stories that people are given nothing but just wait and wait at the airport for long hours…)

    Awaiting more parts to this excellent post!
    (Totally agree we have to be proactive… just not sure how to at times..)

  46. @ flyingfish — Good questions! In general, when things go pear-shaped it’s the operating carrier’s responsibility to fix it, regardless of whether it’s an award or revenue ticket. Where it can get tricky is when you have multiple carriers on a ticket, but I’ve typically found that as long as you are polite and helpful, the agents will respond in kind.

    Let me see what we can do in terms of a more detailed post, but in the meantime here are some general posts Ben has written in the past that might be helpful:

  47. My connection at O’Hare was similarly efficient. There was literally no one at immigration when ORD-PEK arrived; the escalator to the train to the domestic terminal is very convenient; and we had pre-check. I’d estimate 25 minutes from plane to gate.

  48. Delta will also protect people on flights, though I’m not sure if they only do it for people with Elite as the last time I had to do this on Delta was flying with a Diamond Medallion

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