What should you do if your holiday flight plans get canceled? A travel expert explains

American’s mass cancellations this weekend is the third airline meltdown this year

By Monday afternoon, Orlando International Airport was only dealing with 18 American Airlines cancellations. The airline had canceled more than 2,000 flights nationwide starting on Friday.

It’s the second time this year American has done mass “proactive” cancellations.

Spirit Airlines endured a similar systemwide meltdown over the summer.

Southwest Airlines last month canceled hundreds of flights in one weekend.

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Willis Orlando, flight researcher at Scott’s Cheap Flights, said airlines are vulnerable and one small event can lead to major problems.

“Any time you unplug a major part of the economy and try and reboot it, you’re bound to see some problems,” Orlando said. “The biggest issue we’re seeing is that airlines furloughed hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees early on in the pandemic that are hiring them back but not quite quickly enough to keep up with this huge resurgence in demand domestically. So they’re staffed up for the flight schedule but when something small happens, in this case, it was windy conditions around Dallas, and a handful of flights get delayed or canceled, and crews go over their hours, all of a sudden they don’t have the staff in place to fill those planes and are forced to make cancellations en mass.”

American admitted on Sunday in a statement to employees that “staffing runs tight as crew members end up out of their regular flight sequences.”

But many flights attendants and pilots were furloughed against their will for a contracted amount of time, so bringing them back isn’t a simple or quick process. And they have to be re-trained, which can take weeks.

American promised it will continue to staff up with 1,800 flight attendants coming back from furlough Monday. The company said it is also hiring new pilots and tech ops and reservation agents for the holiday season.

Southwest Airlines said it’s also ramping up for the holiday and increasing reserve staffing.

If you’re planning to travel this holiday season, Willis Orlando has some advice.

“If you book a flight, don’t assume it’s just going to go off,” Orlando said. “When American canceled all these flights they announced the Sunday cancellations on Friday. If you were prepared and thinking ahead and checking your flight status on Friday, you would have found out you would have had your flight canceled and you could have called the airline and made alternative arrangements from the comfort of your own home.”

Orlando said if your flight cancels at the last minute, immediately start researching other connections on other airlines.

“If you really need to get from point A to point B, the biggest thing we can say is, approach the customer service agents with respect and kindness, but also with a plan,” Orlando said. “And help them help you. I’ve done this myself, I work in this industry, I booked a lot of flights I’ve had flights canceled and delayed all over the place. If you approach the airline staff with a plan and say hey look I found this flight on your partner and it gets me there an hour or two later, can you put me on that? Very very often they’ll be willing to check that box and get you out of their face and move on to the next person.”

And don’t always book the cheapest fare. Consider booking on larger carriers.

“Budget airlines that run a point-to-point network like Southwest are more vulnerable right now,” Orlando said. “Airlines that direct you through their hubs usually have options from point A to point B so if stuff gets canceled they can move you around a little bit better. But when you only have one flight per day — let’s say between Orlando and Denver on Southwest — they don’t have a lot of options to rebook you. So it’s a little bit easier to book with more robust airlines that have bigger networks and more options.”

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.