Why Are Flights Being Canceled? 14 Reasons For Flight Cancellations

Why do flights get canceled? Airlines sometimes have no choice but to cancel their flight. Here are the top 14 reasons why.

Ah, the age-old question of the modern traveler: "Why on Earth was my flight canceled?"

I know, I've been there, desperately seeking that boarding gate, latte in hand. Flight cancellations can sometimes feel like the universe’s way of testing our patience.

But let’s dive into the reasons, shall we?

Flight cancellations are amongst the worst things that can happen when you travel. Knowing your passenger rights when your flight is canceled will be of great help to get a canceled flight compensation.

1. The Pandemic Hangover

2020 was, let’s face it, the year of staying put. COVID-19 was the curve ball of the year, and it took center stage, causing air traffic to dwindle, and leaving many of our travel plans in the dust. And so, the primary cause of flight cancellation in 2020 was hands-down the coronavirus pandemic.

As the pandemic raged, airlines from American to JetBlue to Ryanair in Europe reduced operations. As the world embraced a new hope of pre-pandemic air travel, hubs from Newark Airport to LaGuardia to London were swamped with travelers. Airlines were not able to meet the soaring demand, and cancellations and flight delays became trending on social media platforms.

Can I get compensation for a flight delayed because of the pandemic?

Most airlines offer refunds, vouchers, or the option to rebook when cancellations are due to the airline's operational challenges. However, pandemic-related disruptions often fall under extraordinary circumstances, usually excluding compensation.

2. Severe Weather Conditions

Thunderstorms in Denver, severe weather in the Northeast, or even dot-sized hail can ground a flight. Bad weather isn't always predictable, and while conditions might be clear in San Francisco or Paris, they can be stormy in Boston and Berlin, leading to cascading flight cancellations.

But there's bad weather and “adverse weather conditions”: airports and aircrafts are equipped to deal with inclement weather, such as heavy rains and even snow. Those do not justify the cancellation of a flight, even though airlines occasionally use this as an excuse, mainly to avoid paying compensation. Adverse weather conditions, on the other hand, are meteorological phenomenons that seriously impair or endanger the operation of a flight, justifying its cancellation. As such, they fall under the category of "extraordinary circumstances".

Keep in mind, however, that airlines look at the weather predictions for the whole itinerary. This means that even if the weather at your departure airport doesn't seem to prevent the operation of the flight, the airline could still cancel it, because of bad weather on the way or at destination .

Can I get compensation for a flight delayed because of bad weather?

Weather disruptions, being beyond airlines’ control, typically don't qualify for compensation, though airlines often offer rebooking options. Then again, it depends on the exact nature of the weather.

Pro tip: experts like ClaimCompas have the means to verify whether an airline is telling the truth when it denies compensation due to bad weather. We check what are called METAR reports, describing the meteorological conditions at the time of your flight. Passengers entrust us with their compensation claim for canceled flights because of our expertise on the topic.

3. Air Traffic Control Restrictions

With air traffic booming, there's an intricate dance going on in the skies. Air traffic control is vital for ensuring safety. From the smallest ones to the largest airports like Beijing, Denver, or Frankfurt, all airports operate under the strict supervision of air traffic control (ATC). With increasing post-pandemic air travel, controllers sometimes limit flights during peak times or due to congestion resulting from flight disruptions.
Air traffic controllers sometimes request an airline to cancel their flight. This usually happens after the flight was delayed: take-off keeps being postponed by lack of available time slot in the airport's departing schedule, until the flight is cancelled altogether. As such, this is one of the main reasons for flight delays as well.

A major reason for flight cancellations, air traffic restrictions have increased at an accelerated pace over recent years. They're mainly the result of the exponential growth of air traffic, which skyrocketed from half a billion in the 1980s to over 3 billion passengers nowadays.

Not to mention that the development of air travel came in pairs with stricter regulations and restrictions. Airport infrastructures have trouble coping with the surge in traffic and it's sometimes hard to accommodate all flights as planned.

Can I get compensation for a flight delayed because of ATC restrictions?

Restrictions by air traffic control, overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and Eurocontrol in Europe, are deemed external (i.e. they are independent of the airline's responsibility). The air carrier cannot disregard a decision by air traffic controllers, so compensation is usually not offered, but rebooking options on a new flight and/or with a different airline are.

4. Staffing Shortages

United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, and all the other US airlines: none are different from European carriers, they have all faced staffing shortages, from flight attendants to pilots. Cancellations can also occur when you're not missing the aircraft, but the people supposed to fly it. How can the airline forget to prepare a crew for its flight, you may wonder?

To make matters worse, the pandemic led to early retirements and furloughs, resulting in increased staffing issues as travel surged.

In addition to that, operational challenges or staff shortages can sometimes mean no available crew or aircraft for a scheduled flight, whether it's a nonstop to Los Angeles or a connecting flight via Dallas.

Flying takes a toll on the body: that's why pilots and flight attendants must respect "flight crew requirements". The staff that was supposed to fly on your aircraft may have maxed out their hours and not be allowed to fly more during the day or the week, leaving the aircraft without a crew.

Finally, occasionally, your flight may also be canceled because a member of the crew is missing for personal reasons, like a medical emergency.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of missing crew?

While disruptions due to staff shortages may offer compensation or credit card reimbursements, it varies across airlines and specific situations in the US. In Europe, however, more often than not, you’ll be eligible for compensation under EC261, because the airline is responsible for organizing crew shifts in a way that guarantees the availability of staff for each of their flights.

5. Computer Glitches

Sometimes, the computer says no (got it?). If air traffic has grown exponentially during the past few decades, it's also thanks to the technological progress that has benefited the industry. Complex algorithms ensure that thousands of flights can take place simultaneously across the globe, taking into account flight patterns and schedules.

Only, technology occasionally fails. Tech meltdowns are not as uncommon as they once were. FlightAware and other real-time flight tracking systems have identified tech hiccups causing delays or cancellations. From check-in systems to flight coordination software, when a computer glitch occurs in the system, the flight schedule of an entire airport or airline can be crippled and a multitude of flights canceled as a result.

In recent years, British Airways was a victim of such a glitch. Their global computer outage caused the cancellation of over 700 of their flights.

Can I get compensation for a flight canceled due to a computer glitch?

When the issue is internal, like a software glitch, travelers may be eligible for compensation or a voucher. In Europe, the EU Regulation 261/2004 isn't explicit on this particular topic. However, if the glitch was the responsibility of the airline, passengers may indeed claim compensation.

6. Security Issues

Unexpected security incidents or concerns, in London, Los Angeles, or Newark, or wherever you’re flying from, can lead to grounded planes on the tarmac. Often falling under the airlines’ control clause, these situations can be complex, from situations of civil unrest, terror attack, or when one of the terminals is on fire, for example.

When this happens, many flights are likely going to be canceled, not a single one. An extreme case was that of the wildfires in California, causing the cancellation of flights to Sonoma Airport.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of a security issue?

Security-related cancellations typically don't qualify for direct compensation as they are explicitly listed as extraordinary circumstances under EU law. But rebooking options or vouchers might be provided.

7. Strikes and Staff Protests

Strikes, either by the airline or airport staff, can ground flights faster than you can say “union rights”. While inconvenient, workers are often pushing for better working conditions.

The airline industry, not just in America but also in Europe, has witnessed strikes. Airlines can face disruptions due to staffing disagreements or protests.

Strikes are not so infrequent in the air travel industry. This can be explained by the fact that it's a sector heavily reliant on a highly specialized workforce. This high level of specialization gives workers a considerable amount of bargaining power, which they leverage by going on strike for better working conditions.

Can I get compensation for a flight canceled due to a strike?

It depends on who was on strike (airport or airline staff) and when the strike action was announced. You can get compensated for wildcat strikes, for instance. Strikes within an airline's control, such as those involving flight attendants or pilots, often come with compensation, whereas strikes for air traffic controllers don’t.

Pro tip: strikes are generally announced in advance, but it may still be hard to determine whether your flight will be affected or not. If the strike is announced in advance, contact the airline to inquire about the status of your flight, but they may still be unable to give you an answer.

8. Mechanical Issues

Aircraft undergo rigorous checks before flying, whether they're destined for Chicago or San Francisco or any other destination. Last-minute mechanical detections can lead to canceled flights or significant flight delays.

While the sound of "mechanical issues" might set off alarms in your head, they can be as minor as a loose cabin light, parking issues, or problems with the fan blades. They are rarely dangerous, but some do require time to be fixed.

Can I get compensation if my flight is canceled because of a mechanical issue?

Mechanical issues, being under the airline's responsibility, often mean passengers are eligible for compensation and/or alternative flight options.

Pro tip: manufacturing defects are extraordinary circumstances, but they rarely occur. A “technical problem” is generally a generic excuse from the airline not to pay compensation: it is not an extraordinary circumstance and you are generally entitled to compensation.

9. Bird strikes and Other Wildlife Accidents

Bird strikes (when the plane collides with a bird, not when our feathered friends go on strike) or wildlife interference, while seemingly rare, can lead to significant disruptions. FAA regulations can sometimes require an entire aircraft inspection following such incidents.

As unlikely to happen as it may sound, it's actually a rather frequent event: 13,000 bird hits are reported in the US every year on average.

Most of the damages caused by bird strikes are minimal, but occasionally, you will find a flight which was canceled for this reason. However, in most cases, airlines cancel flights because of bird strikes because they have to follow a set of procedures on the aircraft, which impacts the flight schedule of the whole aircraft.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of a bird strike?

Wildlife interferences are considered external factors and EC261 considers bird strikes as extraordinary circumstances. While compensation might not be available, airlines often provide rebooking options.

10. Missing Aircraft

Your plane might be MIA but it certainly didn’t vanish. Operational challenges can sometimes mean no available aircraft for a scheduled flight, whether it's a nonstop to Los Angeles, a connecting flight via Dallas, or a simple domestic flight in France.

This can occur when the aircraft scheduled for the flight must actually undergo maintenance or be fixed after an issue was identified.

More commonly, passengers can be left without a plane in the case of "rotational delays". This happens when the delay of a flight has a knock-on effect (or domino effect) on the other flights for which this aircraft was to be used. When this happens, the last flights of the day may be canceled due to the accumulated delay during the day.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of a missing aircraft?

Such disruptions, when due to the airline's logistics, typically come with compensation and/or alternative flight options. The airline is responsible for providing passengers with an aircraft for their flight. When the delay of a previous flight risks leading to the cancellation of another flight supposed to be operated by the same aircraft, the airline must be able to provide another aircraft as replacement.

11. Infrastructure Strain

Airports like Denver, Newark or JFK were bustling even pre-pandemic. Current demand strains already overtaxed systems, causing disruptions, especially during peak summer travel.

You don’t need a travel expert to tell you that the more people take the plane and the more flights are scheduled, the more the systems are taxed.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of infrastructure strain?

Infrastructure strains are often considered external. Direct compensation might not be available if they’re the responsibility of the airport, but alternative flight or rebooking options are typically offered. If the airline is responsible, however, you may be entitled to compensation.

12. Airfare Wars Leading to Overbooked Flights

Aggressive airfare strategies sometimes backfire, especially when operational issues follow promotional offers. These wars to attract passengers can inadvertently lead to overbooked flights.

As a result of the airline selling more tickets than there are seats available on the plane, you may find yourself with a canceled flight on your hands, and a hotel room to book for the night (the airline should handle the costs if that really happens).

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because of overbooking?

Overbookings, if the traveler is denied boarding due to the airline's error, typically qualify for compensation.

13. Not Enough Passengers

Ghost flight? No, not the spooky kind! Occasionally, airlines might cancel because there aren't enough passengers. They occasionally do so when operating the flight would result in a too big an expense.

There are indeed high costs to flying an aircraft. The more passengers on board, the more these costs are absorbed. If there aren't enough passengers to amortize the costs, the airline may decide to cancel the flight instead.

However, keep in mind that the airline won't always cancel the flight just because it's losing money on a flight, as the damage to their image would be perhaps more detrimental than the financial one.

Can I get compensation when my flight is canceled because there weren’t enough passengers?

Yes, absolutely. Though rare, this is in no way regarded as an extraordinary circumstance. If it does happen, your compensation radar should start beeping. The airline owes all passengers a compensation amount between 250 and 600€.

14. Miscellaneous Mischief

Sometimes it's just one of those oddball reasons that don’t fit into any neat category. Like, say, a swarm of bees around the aircraft (true story).

Conclusion on flight cancellation reasons

While disruptions can be challenging, the promise of exploring new destinations, from the streets of New York to the skies over Europe, remains undiminished.

If you’re affected by a flight cancellation, it's essential to understand your rights, especially your right to flight cancellation compensation.

FAQs on flight cancellation reasons

What should I do if my flight is canceled?

If your flight is canceled, contact your airline immediately. They are responsible for booking you on the next available flight or providing an alternative solution. Ensure you have your booking details handy, and always stay calm and polite to increase your chances of a swift resolution. And don’t forget you might be entitled to flight cancellationcompensation.

I missed my connecting flight due to a flight cancellation. What are my rights?

If you miss your connection because of a delay in one of your flights, the airline is typically responsible for rebooking you on the next available flight to your final destination. Depending on the cause of the delay (e.g., if it was within the airline's control), you might also be entitled to compensation, meals, and even hotel accommodations.

How does the U.S. Department of Transportation regulate flight cancellations and delays?

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) mandates that airlines must uphold certain standards when flights are delayed or canceled. For example, if you are bumped off a flight against your will, you may be entitled to compensation. The DOT also requires airlines to notify passengers promptly about delays, cancellations, and diversions. Always check the DOT's official website for up-to-date information on your rights as a passenger.

My connecting flight was canceled, and the next flight isn't until tomorrow. Will the airline cover my hotel stay?

Generally, if the cancellation is due to reasons within the airline's control (like mechanical issues or staffing shortages), they should offer you accommodation or a hotel voucher. If the cancellation is due to factors beyond their control (e.g., severe weather or air traffic control directives), airlines might not offer free accommodations, though some might provide discounted hotel rates.

Can I get a refund instead of being booked on the next flight if my original flight is canceled?

According to U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, if an airline cancels your flight, doesn't fly the route, or schedules a significant delay, and you choose not to travel, you are entitled to a full refund for the unused transportation. This includes both non-refundable and refundable tickets. The same applies in Europe. Always check with your airline for specific refund policies.