The key to making lemonade out of the airlines' all-too-common menu of sour lemons lies in knowing what to ask for.
While most carriers' travel agreements state that they're not responsible or liable for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule or changing the schedule of any flight, that doesn't mean you're powerless. What an airline is legally required to do and what it is willing to do depends on many factors. One is a traveler's savviness quotient and attitude.
When passengers are inconvenienced due to something that is the airline's fault including maintenance, crew or ticketing problems passengers will routinely be put on the next available flight, either one of its own or a competing carrier's. But you also could get a free upgrade if that's the next available seat, or a refund for the unused portion of the ticket if you decide to take some other form of transportation. Meals, ground transportation, phone cards and even one night's lodging may be provided in certain cases. You never know unless you ask.
For events the industry refers to as "force-majeure," things outside an airline's control such as acts of nature, wars, riots or labor actions the airline only must give passengers a refund for the unused part of the ticket. But it could also provide some of the other previously mentioned perks.
The December issue of Consumer Reports Travel Letter examines the subject in depth and offers numerous tips to help travelers cope. Here are some of them:
Download your airline's Customer Service Commitment or "contract of carriage" or Rule 240 at www.mytravelrights.com or from the airline's Web site.
Get a copy of the airline's timetable from its Web site, and avoid carriers with only a few flights staggered hours apart.
Compare your flight's on-time performance with others.
When the weather is an issue, choose a paper ticket over an e-ticket (which is tougher to use on a different airline) and start looking for accommodations and making alternate plans.
Learn which carriers have agreements with yours.
Determine the cause of delay through passenger service agents or the reservation center.
Dress neatly it pays when requesting upgrades or rebooking and be polite; airline personnel have the power to help you or not.
Let the airline know if you paid full price for your ticket; carriers give priority to big spenders as well as to frequent fliers, first-class passengers, handicapped travelers and unaccompanied children.
Inquire about automatic flight-notification systems.
Rebook on another flight or look for lodging through your travel agent, if you used one.
Request phone cards, meal vouchers and accommodations in case of a lengthy delay.
Do the math before buying travel insurance, because it doesn't always pay.
Try to resolve your dispute with the airline directly, but to file complaints about a service issue or to learn more about your rights as a passenger, call the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division at (202) 366-2220.