Missed your flight? Here’s what to do
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information regarding airline policies. It was originally published on Dec. 19, 2017.
We’ve all been there: There was traffic, you slept through your alarm, you forgot something at home — and you missed your flight.
Obviously, it’s not a good situation but there are steps that you can take to remedy it and rules about how airlines should treat you. We’ll walk you through them.
What is the “flat tire” rule?
As we know, airlines experience delays and cancellations all the time, but they often try to absolve themselves by pointing out that a problem was caused by factors “out of their control,” such as air traffic control delays (when they’ve scheduled 100 flights to depart within 20 minutes) or it’s raining (somewhere in North America). When this happens, passengers often receive nothing.
However, most airlines have long had quasi-official policies of waiving fare rules and change fees when passengers need to rebook a flight that they missed. Without these rules, you could be forced to pay hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dollars on the flight you eventually book after missing the one you were supposed to be on.
This policy is known as the “flat tire rule,” though you won’t find it on most airlines’ websites.
How this works in practice
The rule isn’t publicly documented and it can be hard for passengers to take advantage of it, but we do know a bit about how airlines handle missed flights.
American: American has an internal, unpublished Late Arrival Standby Policy that says that passengers who arrive at the airport within two hours of their original departure can be accommodated as standby flyers on the next flight without paying change fees or fare increases, as long as the flight they missed wasn’t the last one of the day. As View from the Wing reports, the following situations have to be applicable:
- they arrive too late to check in but within two hours of their posted departure time, or
- they don’t have proper travel documents and miss their flight, or
- they haven’t applied for or received an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to travel to the U.S., or
- they have mobile boarding passes but turned up at the wrong airport (only for Washington National/Dulles and Houston Intercontinental/Hobby)
Delta: Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, doesn’t have a flat-tire policy. A spokesperson said the airline takes care of missed flights on a case-by-case basis.
The spokesperson explained that the reason the airline doesn’t have such a policy is because it doesn’t want passengers making it into a system for free same-day standby or changes. Instead of having a policy that encourages tardiness, the airline prefers to handle each case in the context of the situation.
No matter what, we recommend calling Delta prior to arriving at the airport to see if you can make a change over the phone. If not, you’ll want to head to the nearest Delta ticketing counter upon your arrival at the airport.
Southwest: Southwest also has an unofficial flat tire rule. If you arrive at the airport within two hours of your scheduled departure, the airline will try to accommodate you via standby on the next available flight to your destination. The rule applies only to passengers who miss their flight through no fault of their own.
In addition, you technically must cancel your flight at least 10 minutes prior to departure to avoid forfeiting the price you paid — but as long as you arrive at the airport within two hours of scheduled departure, you should be accommodated. This even applies to passengers on the last flight of the day.
United: United Airlines doesn’t have a flat-tire policy in place. If you miss your flight and contact United or arrive at a ticketing counter within a half-hour of your posted departure time, United will — “generally speaking” — book you on the next available United or United Express flight. Even though it’s not guaranteed, it’s still worth a shot.
JetBlue: Officially, JetBlue’s policy is that passengers who miss a nonrefundable flight forfeit what they spent. However, the airline will allow you to wait on standby for the next available flight for no added fee. You can also take advantage of the Same Day No Show option, though it will cost you between $75 and $200, depending on your fare.
British Airways: The U.K.’s flagship airline isn’t too forgiving if you miss your flight. As a spokesperson told The Telegraph, “If you miss your flight, then you need to book an alternative.” However, if you are traveling on British Airways and miss a connecting flight, the airline will automatically rebook you on the next one. But both legs of your journey have to be on BA.
Air France: Air France has a generous official policy. As stated on its website, “Missed your flight? The missed flight policy will cover the cost of a new ticket* for the same destination for a departure within 24 hours of the original departure time.” Of course, it’s limited to the cost of the original ticket. You’ll also want to get in touch with the airline ASAP once you miss your flight.
Plan on missing your flight: We know you don’t want to actually plan to miss your flight, but there are times when people book flights knowing they will just barely make them. This is only advisable under a few conditions. First, you’ll need to know that the next available flight(s) will work for your schedule. You’ll also want to travel only with carry-on bags and your boarding pass. Know which gate you are departing from and the quickest way to it, as well as the airline’s official cutoff policy at the gate. We wouldn’t advise this strategy if your flight is the last of the day, international, or for any destination with only one or two scheduled flights per day.
Still, try to make the flight: Always attempt to get to the airport, even if the situation appears hopeless. Sometimes your flight is also delayed and it ends up working out. At other times you might be able to speed through security to your gate. These are the moments where it really pays to have TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR when traveling domestically.
Be careful with baggage cutoffs: You can arrive with plenty of time to board your flight but still be denied the chance to check your baggage if you miss the cutoff time. If you’re checking bags, you need to know your airline’s baggage cutoff policy, which will vary not just by carrier, but by destination. For example, here are Delta’s check-in requirements, ranging from as little as 40 minutes in San Francisco (SFO) to as long as an hour in New York (JFK).
Call the airline: As soon as you know that you’re going to miss your flight, call the airline — especially before the flight departs. Tell them that you’re on the way to the airport but that you’re delayed because factors outside of your control. Agents might be able to rebook you over the phone or they may just tell you to show up and see an agent, but you have nothing to lose by trying.
Pro tip: You may have an even faster time getting through to an agent by messaging the airline on Twitter. Either way, it can’t hurt to shoot them a message first.
Consider same-day confirmed options: Some airlines will sell same-day confirmed seats for later flights. For example, American offers this option for $75. The advantage here is that you won’t have to wait for standby for a later flight and risk not having a seat. Ask the agent about the load factor for the flight before choosing this option, especially if you aren’t departing from a hub. If there are plenty of seats available, this expense might be unnecessary. But if you’re departing from a hub, you never really know how many seats will actually be available at departure or how many others might be ahead of you when you’re on standby.
Remember blanket waivers: Whenever there’s a major regional flight disruption (because of weather or other factors), airlines will issue blanket waivers allowing all passengers to change their flights for any reason at no charge. If you’re lucky, you might be able to take advantage of one of these waivers when you’re running late. For more information, check out this guide.
Remember agent discretion: Since none of these policies are guaranteed to passengers, you’ll be at the mercy of the agent on the telephone or at the ticketing counter, gate or lounge. This is the time to humbly state that you’ve made every effort to arrive on time but were prevented from doing so because of those factors outside of your control. The goal is to get the agent on your side. Remember, a smile and a “thank you” goes a long way.
If you’re asked to pay up for change fees and a difference in fare, try to invoke the flat tire rule to the agent or possibly to a supervisor. If you’re getting nowhere but still have some time, try to get help somewhere else before forking over hundreds of dollars — as we said before, Twitter can really go a long way here. But once your request is denied by a supervisor, it’s likely that your flight record has been documented, and other agents will be unwilling or unable to reverse that decision.
Featured image by Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images.
Additional reporting by Samantha Rosen.
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