On Sept. 26, 2014, a fire at a suburban Chicago Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facility grounded more than 2,000 flights in one day – and more than 5,000 over the next week at both Midway and O’Hare airports.
Hundreds of thousands of travelers were impacted. Their stories ranged from sleeping on terminal carpets to missing weddings and cruises to searching for vacant rooms 50 miles away for their families, for which they would pay out of pocket. Flight delays and cancellations aren’t just an inconvenience; without travel insurance including trip cancellation and interruption coverage, they can be a severe financial drain.
The damaged Chicago facility was responsible for coordinating flights above 18,000 feet over five mid-western states, meaning that there was no immediate solution other than to disperse traffic controllers to similar FAA facilities around the country. It was similar to the effect of a snowstorm; airlines even needed to spend extra money on fuel for planes to fly around Chicago airspace and on customer service staff to rebook passengers.1
Today the bizarre occurrence serves as a lesson for airports, airlines and air travelers alike: even with a Farmer’s Almanac and Magic 8-Ball, you can’t predict every potential mile-high challenge – even when the incidents take place on the ground.2
What follows is a deeper look at how these mass flight delays created by random acts of nature or humanity impact travelers and the airline industry as a whole.
If you’re not a frequent traveler, you may be under the misconception that anytime your flight is delayed or canceled, the airline will take care of you.
To some extent, they will; they’ll make sure you board a flight unless you want a refund, in which case you’ll need to pore over the fine print to see if you are entitled to all or some of the ticket price back. (If your flight it outright canceled, you should be entitled to 100 percent of the unused portion of what you originally paid.)
Here is where it gets interesting. If the airline if at fault for a delay or cancellation, whether it’s an issue with the crew or the plane, you may find some freebies coming your way. These could range from meal vouchers to hotel accommodations. Don’t plan on 5-star dining and lodging, either. Airlines negotiate special cut-rate deals with businesses in these scenarios, so value is the name of the game. However, if you’re delayed by weather, random acts of nature or bizarre incidents such as the Chicago fire, you’re more than likely on your own. Start to add up the bill for lodging, pricey airport food and drink, rental cars and more, and it can get expensive.3
When we talk about the costs of flight delays and cancellations, we’re really talking about two different unexpected expenses. The first are the aforementioned travel interruption costs: a room, food, shampoo, an extra pair of socks; you name it.
By doing some quick and dirty math, it’s easy to see how a family of four can easily spend $300 or more on accommodations, meals, and a rental car – and that’s just for one day.
But there is a second, potentially much bigger price tag: the sweet suite you booked months ago on the other side of your canceled flight, but now won’t be able to sleep in or recoup a refund for. The pre-paid theme park passes. And even cruises, which are tough to catch up with once they leave without you.
For better or for worse, you can put a price tag on these losses. But don’t forget the priceless events and occasions that vagabond airliners can cause: reunions went awry, honeymoons cut short, having to watch the Big Game on a TV at the airport lounge while drying your eyes with the tickets, and even missed weddings (If it’s your own, just elope). Flight delays can also cause complications for passengers who don’t have access to needed medication, for unaccompanied minors and countless other more serious scenarios.
As if all the financial exposure fliers experience during flight delays wasn’t enough, there is one more potential source of monetary loss, albeit an indirect one.
Shift your attention to the airlines for a minute. They have a few things going for them when it comes to managing flight delays and cancellations. First off, if a plane doesn’t take off, then they don’t pay the crew. And second, grounded flights and backlogs of passengers actually add up to fuller flights, which are much more cost-effective for air lines to operate than flying more planes that are only half full across the air space. That said, when all is said and done, the Chicago FAA facility fire still cost the industry more than $100 million.
Where do you think airlines recoup that money? Often, it’s at least partly financed by customers through raised ticket prices, baggage fees and other costs.4
Trip cancellation and interruption coverage can’t protect you from all these scenarios, but it can provide both a financial solution to broken travel plans and lost or delayed baggage, as well as a skilled resource for troubleshooting any unanticipated challenges that your trip presents. Take a moment to compare Allianz Global Assistance’s travel insurance plans before your next trip.5 It doesn’t take an incident on the scale of the Chicago fire to ground your flight and foul up your travel plans – there are hundreds, thousands even, of less impactful situations occurring every day that could cause your trip to deviate from its original itinerary. And travel insurance can provide a fix for many of these scenarios.