A planned airline flight can go awry for many reasons at any time, and right now, schedule changes and delays are more likely than they've been in a long time:
• Airlines run optimistic schedules up the flagpole, then pull them back when not enough travelers salute. The newest startup lines have had to tweak schedules extensively as they adjust to untested markets, but even the big guys have been posting increases, only to pull them back.
• Crazy weather all around the country frustrates even the best airline intentions to perform a posted schedule.
• Staff shortages have resulted in delays, cancellations, long lines in airports, and eternal hold times on phone lines. American, Southwest, and Spirit have had a particularly tough time.
• Covid-19 restrictions aren't over.
I don't see any quick fixes for any of these problems, so you need to know exactly what rights you have when you're caught in a schedule change, cancellation, or extended delay. And don't think that you have many rights guaranteed by the government: In the U.S., the only legally established right is to a combination of a revised flight and cash compensation if an airline bumps you due to overbooking. Overbooking is the only circumstance where you have legal recourse: In all other situations, all you have coming to you is what your airline says in its contract of carriage. And those contract provisions are by no means uniform among domestic airlines.
If you have a ticket — even nonrefundable — and an airline cancels the flight, you are legally entitled to a full cash refund. That's uniform among all lines.
Pre-Trip Schedule Change
If an airline changes the schedule of your flight before you start your trip, you are also due a full refund on almost all lines, but they differ on what constitutes a "schedule change." You can cancel for a refund if the change exceeds 30 minutes on United; 60 minutes on Alaska; two hours on Delta, Hawaiian, and Spirit; four hours on American; and six hours on Sun Country. Allegiant and Frontier say a "significant" delay; and Avela, Breeze, JetBlue, and Southwest contracts do not address the issue at all.
In-Trip Cancellation or Delay
If your flight is canceled or delayed after you start your trip, all lines offer the next available seat on one of their own flights.
A few lines offer to transfer to another line if it can get you to your destination sooner, but only Alaska says it's your decision. Delta, Hawaiian, and United will transfer you, but only at their discretion; the others promise nothing.
In a delay or cancellation that is due to a "force majeure" event such as weather, strikes, government regulations, or anything else beyond the airline's control, an airline owes you nothing beyond whatever assistance it might be able to provide. But if a problem is an airline's fault, and extends into the period 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Alaska, American, Delta, and Hawaiian say they'll arrange hotel accommodations; Avela and Southwest promise hotel accommodations only if you're stalled overnight at a diversion airport, and the others are silent.
Dealing With It
What happens in an "irregular operation" is just one of many items that factor into your choice of airline, but differences among lines can be substantial. Given that the most common remedy for a cancellation or delay is a seat on the line's next flight, risks are especially high on leisure airlines Allegiant, Avela, and Breeze on which the next flight might not be until three or four days later.
Meanwhile, regardless of airline, if you're caught in an extended delay or cancellation, your first step should be to go to your airline's contract of carriage and see exactly what it promises. All lines are required to post their contracts online. Also, as soon as possible, check to see what options you might have on other lines — a suggested solution is easier for an airline to accept than just a cry for help.