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What you can do if your flight has been delayed or canceled

A nationwide ground stop was activated for all U.S. flights early Wednesday because of a technology issue at the Federal Aviation Administration.
A person checks the boards as flights are delayed and canceled at Newark Liberty International Airport
A person checks the boards as flights are delayed and canceled at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Wednesday.Ted Shaffrey / AP

A technology issue at the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded flights nationwide Wednesday.

It is territory infrequently traveled when it comes to the massive and complex U.S. flight system. Not since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have all domestic flights been unable to take off.

So what should travelers do if their scheduled travel has been affected?

According to the Transportation Department, "there are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed."

Instead, each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. The Transportation Department advises that if a flight is significantly delayed, customers should ask airline staff members whether the carrier will pay for meals or hotel rooms — but neither of those is guaranteed.

If a flight has been canceled or delayed for more than two hours, many airlines have policies that will kick in that allow passengers to get full refunds for the unused parts of their tickets. Other airlines will offer vouchers for future flights.

But because the ground stop Wednesday could be classified as a "force majeure" event, also known as an act of God outside the airline's control, each airline will ultimately decide what its passengers may be entitled to. The Transportation Department's new passenger rights dashboard applies only to events that are within an airline's control.

United Airlines has activated a travel waiver for any customers who need to change their plans, including offering refunds for customers who no longer want to travel.

Southwest Airlines is rebooking customers on the next available Southwest flights with seats available to the customers’ ticketed destinations at no additional cost. The airline said customers who choose not to travel because of cancellations or significant delays can receive refunds of the unused parts of the Southwest tickets upon request.

From a practical standpoint in this scenario, there is not much that passengers can do, short of hitting the road in vehicles or jumping on buses to their next destinations. If they do so, it is not guaranteed that an airline will reimburse them for the expense.

Scott Mayerowitz, the executive editor of The Points Guy travel website, said that at this point, all anyone who expects to fly Wednesday can do is have patience.

"If the FAA can restart its system quickly, those passengers who are already at airports whose planes were waiting at gates and who have pilots and flight attendants should be on their way pretty quickly once the ground stop is lifted," he said.

"For everybody else, unfortunately, it’s going to be a horrible day to fly."