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7 tips to save your trip when a tech meltdown grounds your flight

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On August 8, a power outage at Delta Air Line’s hub in Atlanta forced the airline to ground thousands of flights across its system. Although its computers came back online several hours later, the outage escalated into delays and cancellations that rolled into the next day, affecting tens of thousands of passengers. More than 1,000 of fliers were stranded in Tokyo alone, forcing them to sleep overnight at the airport.

The incident follows what Southwest Airlines encountered last month, where technical problems forced the carrier to ground hundreds of flights and even brought down its website; Southwest had to deal with further cancellations and delays that reverberated from the outage, even after its system came back on. CEO Gary Kelly told the Dallas Morning News that the cause was a router that failed and did not trigger the backup.

“It is a shame that the airlines are forcing people to use their online systems more”

And last year, United Airlines grounded flights after a computer glitch brought down its network, which the airline also attributed to a router. This was preceded by computer problems in 2014 and 2012 that also affected United’s operations. Both JetBlue and American Airlines also suffered similar issues in the past year.

Notice a pattern here? Though airlines are striving to make their operations and products more connected, they are relying more and more on computers to handle the work. According to SITA’s 2016 Airline IT Trends Survey, 68 percent of airlines plan to invest in Internet of Things-related products and services, from mobile check-in to airplane diagnostics.

The problem, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is that despite upgrades, airlines are still using IT systems that date back to the 1990s. Southwest, for example, has been using a “kludgy hodgepodge of technology systems,” Bloomberg reports, that have been in use for most of the airline’s 45-year history. Whether it’s a power outage or computer malfunction, the fact that a glitch in Atlanta could bring down Delta’s global network, with no redundancy to pick up the slack, is troublesome. According to Wired, Delta’s backup plan only delivered power back to the lights, but not the servers.

And, as airlines continue to push customers and employees toward computer-based automated systems, there’s no human backup in place either. “It is a shame that the airlines are forcing people to use their online systems more (by charging for certain bookings over the phone and having long waiting times) and as long as this is the trend, there will always be big problems with things like this,” travel expert Charles Barkowski told Digital Trends. He runs the website, Running With Miles, and recently had to deal with a similar situation.

IT meltdowns are becoming the norm, regardless of the airline you fly with. While they don’t occur often, it’s enough of a hit to both customers and the airlines when they do. But, hopefully, operations will improve: In the same SITA survey, a majority of airlines plan to increase spending on IT.

But until then, should you find your trip disrupted by a computer glitch, here are some things you can do to lessen the impact.

Quickly reschedule or cancel

If you’re flying an airline that suffered a computer outage and you have the option of postponing your flight, this may be your best option. Most likely, the airline will need to alter its schedule through cancellations, in order to get its operations back on track.

“If I was not in a hurry, there are many opportunities for bumping to later flights and getting flight vouchers as a result of the delays and cancellations,” Barkowski said.

“If I was not in a hurry, there are many opportunities for bumping to later flights”

Getting on an immediate flight may be challenging – as mentioned, there will likely be cancellations or delays in the days following an outage – but instead of moaning or getting upset, quickly log into the airline’s app to check for options; don’t stand in line to talk to airline personnel. (If you’re an elite member of an airline’s frequent flier club, Barkowski said, use the program’s tools available to you, like a dedicated customer service number.) You may be able to quickly snag a seat on one of the few flights available in the next day or two. Some airlines will automatically rebook you on the next available flight, but check to make sure the new flight date and time works for you. And, the earlier you rebook, the better are your chances of finding a seat on the next available flight (remember, other affected passengers are also trying to rebook).

For affected travelers the airline will waive the fees that are normally tacked onto flight changes, but be sure to check when is the last day you could so. Note other clauses, however: You may have to pay for a price difference if you rebook on a flight outside the allotted time, for example.

Passengers who encounter cancellations or significant delays are entitled to a full refund if their trip hasn’t started. If your plans require you to book a flight with another airline, or you just don’t feel like taking the trip anymore, make sure you get your money back.

Constantly monitor your next flight

If you’ve been rebooked on the next available flight, with the same airline, monitor the flight status via the airline’s website or mobile app, or a website like FlightAware. As an airline tries to return to normal operations, it will likely need to make schedule changes – delays and cancellations. This could help you determine whether to make additional changes (note: airlines usually allow a one-time change without fee), or to avoid rushing to the airport. However, be wary because the information may not be 100-percent accurate. Passengers affected by the Delta outage reported they received incorrect info from the app.

Book with a different airline

It’s possible the outage-affected airline could book you on a different carrier, and while you should inquire, we wouldn’t count on it. Domestically, airlines aren’t as chummy with one another as they once were. Airlines have also cut capacity and fly fewer seats, so even if your carrier wants to put you on another airline, it may not be able to, particularly during busy travel times; to accommodate thousands of passengers is just logistically impossible. (Chances are higher on international flights, because some U.S. airlines are partners with international carriers, especially American, Delta, and United, but also Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and Virgin America.)

But even when an airline won’t book you on another carrier, it doesn’t mean you can’t. As you’re searching for options during a disruption, use a travel app or even Google to find flights and compare prices. You may be surprised to find a decent fare, although you’ll have to pay out of pocket and may require a connection.

Barkowski recommends using airline points to book on a different airline, if you have enough to cover an award travel ticket.

Get into the insider’s lounge

With flight delays and cancellations, comes overcrowding. Barkowski suggests getting inside the airline’s lounge, or a facility like the Centurion Lounge from American Express, where its agents can help provide travel assistance. If you’re going to be stranded for hours, you may as well find some place to camp and grab some refreshments. “They will not have system access either but once any help is available, the agents in there can often be more accessible and helpful,” Barkowski said. And, once the system comes back online, you can get assistance faster. However, lounges do have capacity limits, so try to get in as soon as you can. The Loungebuddy app can help you locate lounges that offer entrance to non-members, for a fee.

Find alternative modes of transport

Could you jump on Amtrak between D.C. and Philadelphia, a $20 bus from New York to Boston, or a rental car between Las Vegas and Los Angeles? If so, these alternative options could help you make that meeting or get home instead of being stranded.

Ashim D’Silva/Unsplash

“If your destination is necessary and close enough, rent a car right away, said Barkowski, who recently had to drive from Cleveland to New York because of a problem. “You can reserve a car for free and no penalties if you cancel (as long as you choose to pay at counter). Good option in case it is a big mess and cars start flying off the lots.”

Don’t forget about the rest of your trip

Cancellations and delays not only affect flight status, but it could disrupt other parts of an itinerary, like hotel bookings.

“It is a good idea to jump on a hotel reservation quickly,” Barkowski said. “Some hotels have cancellation policies that allow up until 4-6 p.m. on the day of arrival – those are viewable at the point of checkout online (before you pay).”

If you’re stranded, the airline may offer you a hotel voucher (although, with a computer outage that affects thousands of passengers, it’s highly unlikely). If not, pull up an app like Booking Now or HotelTonight to quickly book last-minute lodging before they sell out. Barkowski said redeeming hotel points can come in handy in this type of situation, provided you have enough.

Get compensated for your trouble

In Delta’s case, the airline offered affected customers $200 vouchers that can be used on a future Delta flight. While a small consolation to some, it could come in handy for a vacation you had been planning – that is, if you’re not sick of the airline. Make sure you inquire what you may be entitled to in your situation.

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Les Shu
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I am formerly a senior editor at Digital Trends. I bring with me more than a decade of tech and lifestyle journalism…
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