ORLANDO, Fla. - Many travelers flying through Orlando International Airport (OIA) on the day after Christmas have found themselves delayed or in a state of limbo as they sort out their plans after flight cancellations.
In Orlando and across the country, thousands of passengers were left stranded at airports on Monday as airlines worked to recover from the Christmas blizzard. More than 3,600 flights were canceled, according to FlightAware.com, and Southwest Airlines owned a majority of those.
At OIA, the Southwest Airlines departure board was lit up in red. Long lines at the check-in counters wrapped down the hallway as nearly 85% of all Southwest flights were canceled or delayed. "I’ve been in the same clothes for about three days, and we’ve been hotel hopping," said Stephen Svestka.
Svestka and his family were in the Bahamas on vacation. They flew Southwest from the island paradise to Fort Lauderdale where they were supposed to catch a connecting flight home to Chicago in time for Christmas Eve. Instead, they had five different flights canceled over the last three days. "We drove for three hours from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando. We rented a car to get better odds of getting out of here, but it’s not looking like that," said Taylor Brudnicki.
To top it off, they said Southwest lost their bags. Now, they are debating on driving all the way home. "We’ve been in the same clothes. No toothbrush, no mouthwash, nothing!" said Svestka.
The Martins are also flying Southwest to get home to Pittsburgh. "We are trying to be patient, but, we’re anxious to get home," said William Martin.
Their 6 p.m. flight was delayed for two hours before getting the word it was canceled altogether. "I’m a Hilton rewards member, so we’re going to stay somewhere at the Hilton," said Alicia Martin.
FlightAware.com showed Southwest Airlines had canceled nearly 2,700 flights on Monday, over 2,000 more than the next airline, and nearly 800 more are delayed. For those left stranded, their advice to others is not to fly during the holidays.
In a statement, Southwest Airlines offered "heartfelt apologies," as it sorts through the winter weather challenges that "are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable." You can read the full statement at the bottom of this article.
To check flight status, live updates, and flight tracking to and from OIA, visit the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority website. OIA is also advising that all of its parking facilities had filled to capacity late Monday afternoon. For current parking updates and information about alternative parking/transportation options, visit the airport's parking status page.
What happens if my flight gets canceled?
If your flight gets canceled, most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight to your destination – as long as seats are available.
If your flight is canceled, and you choose to forgo the planned trip, you're entitled to a refund for any unused portion of your flight – even if the flight is non-refundable, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In addition, you're also entitled to get your money back for any bag fees or extras, such as a seat assignment.
While airlines are not required to put you on another airline’s flight, they can and sometimes do. "It does not hurt to politely ask your airline if it will transfer your ticket to another airline that has a flight with available seats," the DOT states on its website. "Ask the airline or check online to see if another carrier has open seats and then ask if the first airline will transfer your ticket to that carrier. Remember, however, that airlines are not required to do this."
Airlines are not required to provide passengers with money or other compensation for costs that fall outside the canceled airline ticket such as hotel accommodations, cab fare, or food. Airlines are also not required to reimburse you for any trip costs affected by the canceled flight like a prepaid hotel room, a cruise, a vacation, a concert, other tickets, or lost wages.
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for passengers whose flights have been canceled so don't be afraid to ask. DOT has also created the Airline Customer Service Dashboard to ensure the traveling public has easy access to information about services that U.S. airlines provide.
How to get refunded if your flight is canceled
While a canceled flight is the last thing anyone traveling during the holiday season wants to hear, there is a silver lining: DOT regulations guarantee you a refund.
"A passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to travel," the DOT website explains.
A passenger is also entitled to a refund if the airline makes a significant schedule change or significant delays in the flight and the passenger chooses not the travel, according to the DOT.
"DOT has not specifically defined what constitutes a ‘significant delay.’ Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis," the DOT writes.
However, because of heavy holiday traffic, getting your refund doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to book another flight for the same price. You may be forced to scramble for a more expensive ticket last minute.
You can read more information on refunds at the DOT website.
Statement from Southwest Airlines over delays and cancelations:
"With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable.
"And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.
"We’re working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us.
"We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.
"This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences. We anticipate additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period. And we’re working to reach to Customers whose travel plans will change with specific information and their available options.
"Our Employees and Crews scheduled to work this holiday season are showing up in every single way. We are beyond grateful for that. Our shared goal is to take care of every single Customer with the Hospitality and Heart for which we’re known.
"On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees.
"With no concern higher than ultimate Safety, the People of Southwest share a goal to take care of each and every Customer. We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize."