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Have you ever missed a flight because you showed up at the airport too late? If you travel enough, it’s only a matter of time until it happens to you. And when it does, you need to know the rules — both the official and the unofficial ones. Today, I want to look at how the airlines treat you when you miss your flight, and offer some recommendations for getting the best possible outcome.

Many airlines offer a “flat tire rule” and let you rebook onto the next flight if you miss yours. Image by Tobias Titz/Getty Images.

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 it was due to factors “out of their control,” such as air traffic control delays (when they’ve scheduled 100 flights to depart within 20 minutes), or when it’s raining somewhere in North America. When this happens, passengers receive nothing, and may not even get compensation for an overnight hotel stay.

But mercifully, 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, presumably due to factors outside their own control. And it’s a good thing; if you can’t use this rule, you could be forced to pay hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of dollars to take the next flight.

This policy is known as the “flat tire rule,” though you won’t find it on most airlines’ websites. Ironically, a flat tire is a mechanical failure, which is considered to be outside the control of customers (when driving their own car), even though aircraft maintenance delays are considered within the control of airlines.

Southwest asks that you call them within 10 minutes of the flight to let them know.
Southwest asks that you call them within 10 minutes of the flight you’re going to miss to let them know.

How This Works in Practice

Since the rule isn’t publicly documented, it can be hard for passengers to invoke it. Nevertheless, we do know a bit about how different airlines handle missed flights.

American: American has a Late Arrival Standby Policy that says that passengers who present themselves at the airport within two hours of departure can be accommodated as a standby flyer on the next flight without paying change fees or fare increases, so long as the scheduled flight was not the last of the day. Sadly, the Late Arrival Standby Policy doesn’t exist on American’s website, so this seems to be an internally documented rule.

Delta: According to this article at Hilton’s Club Traveler website, Delta has a flat tire rule that applies when “a customer who in good faith arrives [late] at the airport due to [an] unforeseen delay.” In these cases, customers rely on the discretion of the agents at the airport.

Southwest: Southwest’s internal flat tire rule requires passengers to call the airline within 10 minutes of departure if they won’t make the flight to retain the flight’s cost as credit. If you’re just running behind, be sure to arrive at the airport within two hours of the flight’s departure. Even if it’s the last flight of the day, Southwest will try to accommodate the passenger as standby on the next flight — even if it’s the first flight out in the morning.

United: Chris Elliott’s 2012 interview with United’s senior vice president of customer experience, Martin Hand, is still the only reference I could find on the existence of a delayed passenger rule with United. It seems to actually be called the “flat tire rule” in United’s internal systems, and requires passengers to present themselves at the airport within two hours of departure.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 02: Travelers go through the TSA PreCheck security point at Miami International Airport on June 2, 2016 in Miami, Florida. As the busy summer travel season heats up the Transportation Security Administration is encouraging people to sign up for the TSA PreCheck program to save time going through the airports security lines. Those enrolled in the program can leave their shoes, light outerwear and belt on during the terminal screening process as well as keeping their laptop in the carry-on suitcase without having to remove them at the checkpoint. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Having TSA PreCheck will save you a bunch of time if you’re late. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Recommendations

Plan on missing your flight: You don’t want to actually plan to miss your flight, but there have been times when I’ve booked a flight that I knew I would just barely make, but I only do this under certain conditions. First, I need to know that the next available flight(s) will work for me if I don’t make mine. Additionally, I’ll want to carry on my baggage and have my boarding pass in hand long before I reach the airport. Finally, I’ll plan ahead to optimize my arrival, knowing which gate I’m departing from and the quickest route to it. I also want to know the airline’s official cutoff policy at the gate. I’d avoid this strategy for the last flight of the day, international flights or for any destination with flights that only leave once or twice a 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, while 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.

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. So 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, often with little apparent logic to it. For example, here are Delta’s check-in requirements, ranging from as little as 30 minutes in Cincinnati to as long as an hour at New York (JFK), and even the tiny airport at St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands (due to immigration requirements upon departure).

Call the airline: As soon as you know for sure that you’re going to miss your flight, you should call the airline, and I’d certainly do so before the flight departs. Tell them that you’re on the way to the airport, but that you’re delayed due to 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.

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 missing it. My recommendation is to 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, due to a variety of factors.

Remember blanket waivers: Whenever there’s a major regional flight disruption (due to 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 utilize one of these waivers when you’re running late. For more information, see my post on avoiding change and cancellation fees.

Remember agent discretion: Since none of these policies are guaranteed to passengers — and only some seem to be documented internally — you’ll be at the mercy of the telephone, ticketing counter, gate or lounge agent. This is the time to humbly state that you’ve made every effort to arrive on time, but were prevented from doing so due to factors outside of your control. The goal is to get the agent on your side.

If 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. For example, if the ticketing agents are of no help, try visiting the lounge or even using Twitter. 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.

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