Your Airline Isn’t Telling You This ​​When Your Flight Is Cancelled

I’ve written this post in response to an email from a reader, who couldn’t believe his ‘luck’ when he found himself able to use this piece of information I had given him, that a lot of passengers are completely unaware of…

Flight cancellations are a headache for all involved, the passenger and the airline. While an airline will do all it can to avoid cancelling a flight, it’s inevitable there will be some disruption due to either internal factors, such as operational disruption, lack of crew, aircraft technical fault, or external factors, such as weather.

The UK experienced the second highest number of flight delays and disruptions of any country in Europe this year, according to new research — with UK flight cancellations up 86% compared to 2017.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany suffered from even more disruption, with 167,420 delays and 14,040 cancellations this year. Out of 630,000 flights, around 29% were disrupted. France, Spain and Italy were third, fourth and fifth worst affected respectively in terms of numbers of disrupted flights. Portugal had the highest percentage of flights that have been delayed or cancelled – more than one in three of the flights that have departed the country so far in 2018.

A few weeks back, I was flying from Valencia to Zurich to London Heathrow with Switzerland’s flag carrier airline, SWISS. SWISS is a member of Star Alliance, which has 28 member airlines — helpful, for when you need to book onward flights to destinations not directly served by your airline. Both flights would be operated by SWISS, and I had a connection time of 60 minutes in Zurich.


After flying from Valencia, upon arrival to Zurich I was informed by ground staff that my connecting flight to London Heathrow was cancelled due to ‘operational reasons’ and that the next SWISS flight (with at least one empty seat) wasn’t for another six hours. SWISS may be in Star Alliance, but (understandably) none of its partner airlines operate on the Zurich to London Heathrow route, and so transferring to a partner airlines’ flight was not an option.

The next part is very simple but very important — and something I always do when my flight has been cancelled

I left the connecting-flight transit desk and checked (on my phone) for all flights leaving Zurich to London, within the six-hour window that SWISS were expecting me to wait for. There were two flights, both with British Airways — and with seats available. British Airways is not a partner of SWISS, and has no link with the airline but this does not always matter. Given SWISS were at fault with cancelling my London flight, the ‘power’ moves to the hands of the passenger. The airline has an obligation to get you to your destination, regardless of alliances, partners or codeshare agreements.

I returned to the transit desk and informed the agent that there were seats available on a British Airways flight, leaving from the same terminal in 45 minutes. The agent very quickly cut me off with “We do not partner with BA, Sir—” to which I informed her that this was irrelevant, and should she be unsure of what I was explaining, to call her supervisor.

Within five minutes, the supervisor arrived, and informed the agent (who remained surprised throughout) that they could indeed “absolutely book Mr Macheras onto the BA flight if there are available seats” explaining that ” despite the two airlines not being partners in any way, this is something we are able to do, as SWISS will simply pay British Airways for the seat.” After just three minutes, the agent presented me with a British Airways boarding pass to London, and I was on my way to the gate, where boarding was already underway. I reached London around five hours earlier than I would have had I just accepte​d taking the next available SWISS flight.

The concept of being rebooked onto a competitor airline is widely unknown to passengers in the industry​, and I followed up with this scenario to discover that out of all passengers on my cancelled London flight, I was the only passenger to have been rebooked onto a BA flight — the rest of the passengers waited six hours for the next SWISS flight. This isn’t because I was given any kind of ‘special treatment’ but it’s because those other passengers did not arrive at​ the transit desk requesting to be transferred onto a specific flight (regardless of the airline) — instead they received​ boarding passes for what they were told was the ‘next available flight’, and didn’t question it further.

Final Thought 

An airline rebooking passengers onto a competitor airline is among one of the standard practices of the industry, but it’s little-known, never advertised, and never highlighted by the airline.

I’ve travelled with senior aviation executives who were also unaware of such a concept — a few months back I was travelling with two, and our 21:30 LOT Polish Airlines flight (Star Alliance) was cancelled from Warsaw to London. While the rest of the flights’ passengers were redirected to the baggage hall to collect bags and head to hotels for night (as arranged by the airline), I headed straight to the airline transit desk. I pointed out there were 3 available seats on a British Airways flight leaving in 35 minutes (which itself, added to the urgency of the situaiton). The agent made a few calls to head office, to seek confirmation of her ability to reboook us onto a competitor airline. 15 minutes later we were pushing back from the gate on a BA flight to London Heathrow…

Each flight ticket has value to an airline, and most will be able to book onto competitor carriers, especially if you explain to the agent how it can be done. There are exceptions, however. It’s extremely unlikely to work with low-cost carriers, as they’ll have strict policies which prevent the airline from being able to purchase other tickets. It will be possible on airlines that are somewhat ‘equal, for examp,​le Iberia and Lufthansa, or Scandinavian Airlines and British Airways. These airlines are all full-service, or national carriers.

I’ve used this flight cancellation ‘strategy’ countless times, and the agents themselves are often surprised to realise they possess the ability to rebook passengers onto a compeitor airline. Ultimately, disruption hampers airline operations, and the sooner a passenger can be reaccomdated — the better.

3 thoughts on “Your Airline Isn’t Telling You This ​​When Your Flight Is Cancelled

  1. Hi Alex, a really useful article – two elementary questions, whats the best way to quickly check availability in a situation like this, and would this work if you had hold luggage checked through to your destination, on the previous leg of your flight? Thanks, Ian

    1. Hi Ian — best way to check if seats are available is by using ‘expertflyer’ app, or simply checking on the airlines’ website, for the number of passengers needing to fly.

      With regards to hold luggage, I’ve had agents retrieve my luggage & re-tag without any issue

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