Image: Waiting in line
Paul Beaty / AP
Passengers wait in line at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Wednesday. American Airlines canceled nearly 2,500 flights over three days, affecting an estimated quarter million people.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/10/2008 3:32:39 PM ET 2008-04-10T19:32:39

If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of air travelers whose plans are disrupted by this week’s inspection-related cancellations at American Airlines or one of the flights bound to be called off because of safety concerns in coming days, don’t think of yourself as permanently grounded.

You can still get to your destination, and you probably have more rights than the average passenger. A lot more.

“If your flight is canceled because of an inspection that’s presumably required by the Federal Aviation Administration, your airline may provide for hotels, meals, alternate transportation and forgiveness of cancellation penalties,” says Thomas Dickerson, author of “Travel Law” (Law Journal Press, 2008).

But before invoking any of those rights, it’s important to find out if your trip is “go” or not. And that’s a lot easier said than done.

Out of nowhere
The latest wave of cancellations has happened with little or no warning. For example, Southwest Airlines abruptly grounded 41 planes in mid-March after officials announced it would fine the airline a record $10.2 million for inspection violations. “You don't get a warning it will happen,” Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin told me. “Fortunately, our event came up at night. We then had overnight to address it and were able to accomplish the majority of the work for the next day's schedule.”

Other airlines affected by sudden cancellations include United Airlines, which earlier this month grounded its fleet of Boeing 777s, and US Airways, which last month took some Boeing 757s out of service.

It is difficult to know which airline will be next. It can even be difficult to determine which flights are affected on an airline that has announced cancellations.

American Airlines, the most recent carrier to cancel flights (2,400 through Thursday) posted a notice on its Web site and notified customers by phone and e-mail. But not everyone got the message.

“Travel agents are not even being notified,” Bill Wert, an agent with Canyon Creek Travel, an American Express agency in Richardson, Texas, told me yesterday. “Normally we receive a ‘NO’ status for a flight when it is canceled by American. However, American is not sending this status indicator for a majority of the cancellations.” Instead, agents like Wert are pulling each reservation manually and checking the flights to see if they’re being serviced by MD-80 planes, the aircraft type affected by the inspections.

Beyond saying that the flights are canceled, American has been less than communicative with passengers, too. The blogosphere is buzzing with firsthand reports of passengers who are unable to reach the airline to reschedule their flights.

‘Keep a smile in your voice’
So it was no surprise that I received an e-mail from an exasperated reader at 4 a.m., complaining about American’s nonresponsiveness. Stephen Doggette, an information systems consultant from Dayton, Ohio, had been trying to reach the airline since the previous evening. “I have been greeted with a flat-out busy signal, dead air, a message indicating that representatives were currently busy helping other customers, so please call back later, and messages indicating that all circuits were busy,” he wrote. “The combinations of the above scenarios are too numerous to count at this early hour.”

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For its part, American is urging its employees to keep calm as frustrated passengers like Doggette come calling. “Please do not speculate to our customers and just use the guidelines in [the system] for your conversations,” said one internal memo sent to me by an American Airlines insider. “Keep a smile in your voice and thanks for all your hard work!”

(For longer excerpts from the internal memo, click here.)

As to which airline is next, that’s anyone’s guess. Timothy O’Neil Dunne, a travel technology consultant based in Claymont, Del., compiled a list of likely airlines to follow American on his blog. Among them: Delta Air Lines, which operates more than 100 MD-80s and some MD-90s, Allegiant Air and Alaska Airlines. Internationally, troubled Alitalia operates 75 MD-80s, according to O’Neille Dunne. So far, there have been scattered reports of cancellations at Delta, Alaska and Midwest Airlines, though not on the scale of American.

If your flight is canceled because of an inspection problem, here’s what to do:

Check with your airline: When there’s a major maintenance-related series of cancellations, the airline Web site is the first place you should turn for answers. American Airlines publishes a page with helpful information about the scope of the cancellations, your options, and how to reach the carrier. “We are providing hotel and meal vouchers and ground transportation where at all possible,” says Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesman. “We are also issuing $500 travel vouchers above and beyond our requirements for passengers who are forced to overnight because of a cancellation.”

Call your travel agent: Whether you booked your flight through a traditional travel agency or an online agency, the next place to go for help is a qualified travel professional. An agent can find a seat on another flight that isn’t affected by the inspection problems. “Essentially, they get to the front of the line because we can easily see what’s available and tell them what their options are,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Maria Maher, a travel agent with Agora Travel Life Adventures in Delray Beach, Fla., rebooked a client affected by the cancellations “within minutes after his call.” Several airlines, including United Airlines, Northwest Airlines and US Airways have agreed to accept American tickets, according to the American Airlines memo.

Know your rights: An inspection-related cancellation is considered a mechanical problem, as far as the contract goes. Under American Airlines’ conditions of carriage — the legal contract between you and the airline — you’re entitled to more than just a flight home. If you buy a ticket on another airline, you’re entitled to a full refund. Otherwise, American promises, “you will be rerouted on our next flight with available seats.” Also, if the delay or cancellation was caused by events within the airline’s control — as these are — and you don’t reach your destination on the day you expected to arrive, American will “provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability,” according to the contract.

Flash your card: Here’s something that isn’t immediately apparent by reading an airline contract or even talking with your travel agent. There are travelers and there are travelers. Agents are authorized to offer more — often, much more — to frequent travelers or customers with special needs. In some internal reservations systems, agents are given permission to do more than you would think, including paying for meals, phone calls, ground transportation and other incidentals. At a time like this, when airline employees are working overtime to cope with displaced passengers (the internal American Airlines documents urge reservations representatives to “work as many extra hours as they can through Friday in order to accommodate our inconvenienced passengers”) it doesn’t hurt to ask, “what else can you do for me”? At the very least, let your air carrier know you’re a frequent flier. It can’t hurt.

The inspection-related cancellation epidemic of 2008 is probably far from over. But if you know whom to call, where to check, what to expect and the right questions to ask, you don’t have to be grounded along with the jets.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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