How to Handle Flight Delays & Cancellations

As the world returns to travel at breakneck speeds, airports, airlines, and government agencies are struggling to keep up with the unprecedented demand.

Let’s have a look at the best strategies for handling any kind of flight delay or cancellation that affects your trip, also known as “IRROPS” (irregular operations) in aviation lingo.

The best practice is to know how to find solutions quickly when you’re in the midst of the situation, and getting reimbursed for any damages after the fact.

The former allows you to take initiative for yourself instead of waiting for the airline to take care of things for you, and can even be a hidden opportunity to improve your trip by getting better aircraft, routings, or timings.

Meanwhile, the latter ensures that you’re made whole for any damages you’ve suffered, especially in the face of an airline industry that’s not always the most willing to own up to its own mistakes.

In This Post

Before Your Trip: Strategies for Anticipating Delays

The best way to deal with delays and cancellations is if you can proactively avoid them in the first place, or take steps in advance to make your life easier in the event that they occur.

Credit Card Insurance

The anticipatory strategies begin with choosing the right credit card on which you make your booking. Most premium travel credit cards will provide a pretty strong travel insurance coverage on any flights booked directly using the card, including benefits like flight delay compensation and trip interruption insurance.

However, if you’re booking a flight on points, you’ll want to understand which credit cards provide insurance on award travel, as there are quite a few subtleties between the major credit cards in terms of when the coverage kicks in.

For example, the Amex Platinum’s strong insurance package won’t apply to your flight booked on Aeroplan points, even if you charge the taxes and fees to the card. For these bookings, you’ll have to use a core or premium co-branded Aeroplan card from TD, CIBC, or Amex. Alternatively, you could use BMO or National Bank’s World Elite cards, which cover award tickets booked using any type of points currency.

Once your flight is booked using the right credit card, you now have the peace of mind knowing that you can make some insurance claims in case that delays or cancellations affect your travel plans.

Monitor Your Booking

The next step is to monitor your itinerary in the days and hours leading up to your flight, to watch out for any potential interruptions that you can spot early on.

For example, in the case of widespread issues affecting a particular airport or region (think inclement weather or mass civil disobedience), airlines often issue travel waivers that allow passengers to make changes to their plans at no cost. Making alternative plans during these periods can allow you to avoid a major headache later on along your travels.

Meanwhile, in the hours leading up to the flight, you can check the airline’s app or search up your flight number on Google, where any delays or cancellations are often posted a few hours in advance.

The earlier you spot delays or cancellations and make alternative arrangements, the better  you’d hate to be arriving at the airport to find your travel plans in tatters, with no choice but to swarm the ticketing desk with the rest of the crowd.


During Your Trip: Strategies for Finding Alternatives

So, your flight plans have been struck with a delay or a cancellation. Now what?

In the case of a cancellation or a significant delay, the airline often proactively books you on an alternative flight, which may depart later that day or the day after. Sometimes they’ll put you on an alternative routing through a different airport, or on a flight operated by one of its airline partners, or both.

Either way, if you’re happy with these alternative arrangements, you don’t really need to do anything besides double-checking your reservation to verify your new flight details.

However, if you’re unhappy with these alternative plans in any way, or if you think you could do better (which is quite likely!), then it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

Research Your Desired New Itinerary

When delays or cancellations strike, the airline is obligated to rebook you to your destination, and can leverage any available seats on any flights within its interline partner network to do so.

They may not proactively want to do so, since rebooking on partner airlines tends to be more complicated than rebooking on their own metal, but that’s where you come in.

A situation like this is where the US$100/year fee on ExpertFlyer can basically pay for itself. There are two main features that you’ll find especially helpful in dealing with an airline booking gone awry.

First, ExpertFlyer allows you to figure out which airlines have interline agreements with the airline you’re travelling on any such partnership means that the airline is able to rebook you on its interline partner in the event of a delay or cancellation.

Note that interline partnerships usually extend beyond the three major airline alliances it’s quite common for, say, a Star Alliance airline to have interline agreements in place with several Oneworld and SkyTeam airlines.

Use the Interline Agreements tab, under the Travel Information search function on the sidebar, and look up the airline you’re travelling with. If an airline shows up under the E-Ticket Interline Agreements heading, you’ll be able to ask to be rebooked on one of their flights.

Now that you know which partner airlines you can use, you also need to find out which flights and routings have available seats in your chosen class of service prior to approaching the affected airline to ask to be rebooked. After all, it’s no use asking for a certain flight if all the seats have already been occupied by paying passengers.

For this, use the Flight Availability search function to search for the specific flights in question. If you’re travelling in business class, you’ll usually be looking at the “J”, “C”, “D”, or “P” fare codes, whereas if you’re travelling in economy you’ll be looking at the “Y” fare bucket or anything after that.

If the number of open seats corresponds with the number of passengers in your party, then you know you can ask to be rebooked on that flight. So for example, if you’re travelling as a couple in business class, you’d be looking for flights that have at least “J2”, “C2”, etc.

Use a Delay or Cancellation to Get a Better Itinerary

Don’t be afraid to leverage your knowledge of airline routes in this situation. If you were booked to travel from Toronto to Warsaw on LOT Polish Airlines, for example, you could ask LOT to rebook you on a combination of an Air Canada flight to Zurich, followed by a Swiss flight to Warsaw, availability permitting.

Remember, in the case of “IRROPS” or irregular operations, there are no change fees, fuel surcharges, or anything of that matter. This is also a potential opportunity to change your itinerary to a more favourable one, if desired.

You could ask for a direct flight if you were originally booked with a connection, potentially getting you to your destination at an earlier time. Or you could pick and choose your airline to get on a better business class product or try a new one, all without having to pay any change fees.

If treated with the correct mindset, a delay or cancellation can indeed be a wonderful blessing in disguise for a savvy traveller.

Ask the Airline to Change Your Ticket

Once you’ve figured out your desired alternative routing, it’s time to approach the airline to make your wishes known.

Be smart about this: if you see a huge crowd by the airline ticketing desk, don’t waste your time there – give the airline a call instead. If the hold times are unbearable, try reaching out over social media, as the teams monitoring those platforms may be able to speed up the process.

There is no need to be upset…
There is no need to be upset…

If you have lounge access, head to the concierge desk within the airline’s lounge, because the agents there can usually handle ticketing as well. And if you have any kind of elite status with the airline (even if it’s lower-tier status), throw your weight around and politely insist that you should take priority over the rest of the rabble.

No matter where the conversation takes place, it’s important to approach the airline representative with a calm and collaborative attitude. Pear-shaped travel plans can certainly arouse strong emotions within people, but letting those emotions loose will get you nowhere.

Instead, your approach should be focused on working together with the agent to find solutions, and you should emphasize the fact that you’ve already found an alternative solution that would work best for you, and you’d simply like the agent’s help in implementing it. 

After Your Trip: Strategies for Seeking Compensation

You should also be familiar with the various ways of seeking reimbursement for damages incurred as a result of a delay or cancellation after-the-fact. There are several different legal and commercial channels through which you can do so, so let’s quickly recap each one here.

EU261 for Flights to/from Europe

The European Union’s EC261, commonly referred to as EU261, is the most well-known example of a legal ruling obligating airlines to compensate passengers in the case of a flight delay as a result of factors within the airline’s control.

If you’re flying within Europe on any airline, into Europe on an EU-based airline, or out of Europe on any airline, then you are entitled to up to €600 per person in compensation, depending on the distance of your scheduled flight.

There are several more conditions and exceptions governing EC261, which you can view on the EU’s website.

Note that airlines aren’t always cooperative about paying out this compensation, and some airlines will even lie to your face and blame the delay on factors outside of their control when in fact they should be paying up. Threaten legal action if necessary, but don’t relent until you’re paid the compensation you’re due.

Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations

Canada introduced its own Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which came into effect on December 15, 2019. The big difference between EC261 and the APPR is that Canada’s regulations only requires compensation to be paid when the cause of the delay is within the airline’s control and not related to safety.

Guess what? Every airline can therefore blame their delays on mechanical issues which are related to safety, or on crew scheduling issues that they claim outside of their control as a knock-on effect from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides the legal avenues, you can also cite the specific airline’s tariff, which outlines some of the key provisions that the airline must deliver in the case of controllable delays.

Examples might include meal vouchers and overnight lodging, and you can present the airline staff with the tariff in case these provisions aren’t being handed out.

Note that all of the above does not apply if the delay is a result of an uncontrollable factor, like inclement weather. And those situations are why you should also have travel insurance, whether it comes as a perk on your credit card or you purchased it separately. 

As we discussed above, if you make sure your credit card provides insurance at the time of booking, you can go about any delays and cancellations with the peace of mind that you’ll be reimbursed for any food, taxis, or overnight accommodations you must book as a result of a delay or cancellation, even if the airline isn’t obligated to do so.

Lastly, if you ever need any help along the process of seeking compensation, the Air Passenger Rights (Canada) Facebook group is a fantastic resource. Gabor Lukacs, the founder, is doing excellent work defending the rights of his fellow Canadian travellers, so I’d highly recommend posting in the group to seek advice if you need it.


Flight delays and cancellations are going to happen sooner or later along your travels, and the best way to deal with them is to fully equip yourself with knowledge on how to pre-empt, deal with, and ensure you are fully compensated for “irregular operations” when they do occur.

By learning and implementing the strategies in this article, you can hopefully come out of your next flight delay or cancellation with fewer headaches and a more pleasant journey and perhaps even a nice chunk of cash in your bank account!

  1. Elton

    Really informative and timely update on the incoming months/years(?). Deserve a pin for many!

  2. Adam

    Hi Ricky. Really good and informative article. We have a trip planned and was wondering if the time the airline advised you of the delay or cancellation makes a difference for the compensations. What if the airline tells us 2 days before about it? I mean if this is the departure flight and we are home there is no cost to us like needed to book a hotel. But what about the reservation of a hotel you made? What if you are not able to use the first night booked or need to stay another night? And once you are abroad and the airline advise you of the delay or cancellation does it make a difference when they tell you? I’m asking these questions because the airlines are now saying that they will try to give passengers as much notice as possible. Thanks

  3. Alex YYZ

    Hey Ricky,
    Just stumbled upon this old post.
    It was very informative and valuable back in the day.
    Any plans to refresh it – to add all the COVID related issues?

  4. Martin

    This is a great post, Ricky, and a "genre" of post that fits really well alongside your usual points-focused writing!

    I would love to read more about you recounting an actual IRROPS scenario and how you went about handling it, especially when it comes to making claims via the insurance included on Amex cards (seems very murky).

  5. Eric

    Thanks again Ricky for a concise, usable article.

  6. Alex YWG

    I find that for the Canadian airlines that WestJet is so much better at taking care of customers than Air Canada. I have flown multiple times with both airlines and WJ has compensated me always and in some cases even when I did not ask or expect a compensation. My Flight from Las Vegas was delayed by several hours, when I landed I got a $100 voucher on my WJ account.
    Another time someone had taken my luggage but returned 45mins later and picked up their correct one. I did not ask or expect anything since it was not WJ’s fault but they gave me a voucher as well.

    Dont want to write a novel on my AC experience but they definitely could learn from WJ customer service. I asked them to pay for half my out of pocket expenses, or refund me half my flight cost or give me the equivalent in AP which is 12,500. They did neither but gave me a 25% coupon code on a AC base fare flight, which is pretty useless imo.

    I did manage to rebook my flight on my own by being in line and calling the customer service number. I got a flight that evening instead of the rebooked flight 3 days later.

  7. Justin

    Hi Ricky: This is such a helpful post. I recently booked my first ticket on points, but now I regret that I hadn’t given much thought to trip interruption/cancellation insurance. At the time of booking, I simply used my default card to cover the taxes and fees, only to discover later that it doesn’t have this type of insurance. Now that the ticket is booked, what (if any) options do I have for trip interruption/cancellation insurance? Cheers, Justin.

    1. Ricky YVR

      The only option now is to purchase insurance separately. May be worth it for the peace of mind especially if it’s a large trip with lots of flights on the itinerary.

  8. Rich

    Great article full of useful tips and solutions. Thanks!

  9. John Bucher

    A very pertinent article considering Canadian airline’s scheduling problems due to 737 Max situation and the fact that we are entering a busy fall and winter of travel with all the potential troubles that may ensue.

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