When a major weather system shuts down a big U.S. hub, passengers find themselves scrambling to get rebooked on another flight. However it can be hard to get the first seat on the next available plane during the summer travel season when flights are full.
The first thing to know when your flight is cancelled, is the airline's computer system may automatically pick another flight for you.
"We have computer programs that can go through all the various connecting scenarios much more quickly than any human typing on the keyboard", said Tim Smith a spokseman for Fort Worth-based American Airlines.
While the computer picks another option, it does not have the final word about your travel fate.
Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com tells passengers to arm themselves with information, using their mobile phones to learn about alternate flights. Then, use that information to negotiate the best option available, and keep your cool.
"They will put you on other airlines absolutely, but if you can help them help themselves, you're going to have a much better situation than screaming and hollering. If you scream and holler at the agent they have no incentive to help you out", Seaney said.
If the airport is completely gridlocked, Seaney recommends passengers consider unconventional routes, in some cases any route, that gets them out of the city with big delays and on to another hub. From another city the chances of finding a seat to your final destination should increase, with fewer people battling over a small number of open seats.
When business traveler Katie Winchell got stranded at DFW Airport during storms in May, she learned another tough reality of the rebooking system. The airline placed her on standby for another flight to Ontario, California. But, she was quickly bumped down the list by passengers with more frequent flyer miles than she has.
Frequent flyer status, the amount of money you paid for your ticket, and even how early you checked-in for your flight, can all determine the pecking order for rebooking.
"Practically every business in American does something to recognize its most loyal customers who are customers more frequently," said Smith.
To get a leg up in the competition for an available seat, signing up for the airline's e-mail or text alerts can help. Passengers who get those alerts sometimes find out about cancellations even before they're announced at the airport, allowing them to get in line faster to talk to an agent. Only about half of American Airlines passengers sign up for those alerts.
When you find out your flight is canceled, Seaney recommends getting in line and calling the airline's reservations number from your mobile phone at the same time. Someone may pick up the phone faster than you get to the front of the line.