Airlines can cancel flights at the last minute for 3 main reasons: the weather, mechanical and technical issues, and crew-related issues.
Let’s take a closer look at each, as well as what you are entitled to if your flight is canceled at the last minute.
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Weather Related Cancellations
- 2 2. Mechanical and Technical Cancellations
- 3 3. Crew Related Flight Cancellations
- 4 What You Are Entitled to If Your Flight Gets Cancelled
1. Weather Related Cancellations
One of the most common reasons why airlines cancel flights is due to the unpredictable nature of weather, including sudden thunderstorms, snowstorms, and hurricanes.
Thunderstorms bring heavy rain, strong winds, and lightning, that create dangerous conditions for planes to take off in.
Take Delta Flight 191, which killed 136 of the 163 occupants onboard, due to the pilots losing control because of a microburst during takeoff, resulting in runway undershoot.
Snowstorms can paralyze airports and greatly impact flight schedules, especially in regions prone to heavy winter weather.
Not only is visibility greatly reduced, but the amount of snow and ice that accumulates on runways and aircraft during a snowstorm can make takeoff and landing very dangerous, though de-icing procedures can help.
With their strong winds, heavy rains, and unpredictable weather patterns, there’s no doubt that hurricanes will result in flight cancellations due to the danger they pose.
However, how close an airport is to the hurricane’s predicted path will play a role in whether a flight will be canceled or not.
2. Mechanical and Technical Cancellations
Flight cancellations due to mechanical and technical issues aren’t that much of a common occurrence in the aviation industry due to scheduled maintenance and airlines taking rigorous measures to maintain their aircraft, but can still happen.
While airlines follow strict maintenance schedules to inspect, repair, and replace aircraft parts as needed, routine maintenance can sometimes reveal unexpected issues that require immediate attention and impact flight schedules.
So, if an aircraft is suddenly grounded, this can lad to flight cancellations and have a knock-on effect for other flights.
Various aircraft systems, including avionics, engines, and hydraulics are prone to technical failures, just like any other piece of technology.
These failures can range from minor glitches that are quick to fix, to significant malfunctions that will take more time and result in flight cancellations instead of delays.
Safety Checks and Protocols
Before each flight, pilots and maintenance crews follow strict safety protocols, including examining critical systems, fuel levels, and overall airworthiness, to ensure that the aircraft is in proper working order.
If something comes up during the pre-flight check, the airline will take action to address the issue, which may involve canceling the flight until the issue is resolved.
3. Crew Related Flight Cancellations
Pilot and cabin crew availability, crew rest requirements, and unexpected sick leave can all result in flight cancellations.
Crew Rest Requirements
Both pilots and cabin crew members must follow strict rest requirements that are mandated by aviation regulations.
These regulations ensure that crew members are well rested and alert during their duty periods.
Sometimes, scheduling conflicts or operational delays can impact these rest requirements that can result in cancellations.
Pilot and Crew Availability
Scheduling conflicts, pilot and crew illness, or unforeseen personal emergencies can all lead to an airline having to cancel a flight.
For example, if a pilot or cabin crew member unexpectedly calls in sick shortly before a flight, the airline must find a replacement, which might not always be easy to do due to prior scheduling and rest requirements.
Strikes, which are not just limited to pilots and the cabin crew but all employees working at the airport, even if they don’t work for a specific airline, such as air traffic control and ground staff, can significantly impact airlines’ flight schedules.
What You Are Entitled to If Your Flight Gets Cancelled
If your flight is cancelled, what you are entitled to varies depending on if your flight is within the USA or EU.
Federal law entitles you to a full cash refund if your airline cancels or “significantly” delays your flight.
This is the case even for non-refundable tickets.
You’re also entitled to a refund whether the cancellation was caused by bad weather or other events outside an airline’s control.
If you accept a refund, this means that the airline will no longer automatically book you on the next available flight.
U.S. laws don’t require airlines to provide assistance at the airport or offer other compensation.
For example, while airlines in the US aren’t required to pay for your hotel if your flight is canceled, some will, though it will of course depend on the airline and the circumstances behind the cancellation.
Under E.U. laws (EU261), you are entitled to a full refund, and the airline is also required to either provide you with assistance at the airport, including food and refreshments, or reimburse your food expenses at the airport.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).