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Flight Disruptions’ Impact on Vulnerable Passengers [unreported stories]

Flight Disruptions’ Impact on Vulnerable Passengers [unreported stories]

Joanna Teljeur
Written By Joanna Teljeur
Last Updated: June 07, 2024

If you’ve ever missed a connection because of a flight delay or had to scramble after learning your flight was cancelled at the last minute, then you know the wake of chaos that can result from flight disruptions. But the inconvenience and financial impact are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, for many passengers, the effects of delays and cancellations run far deeper and are much more personal, especially for those who are:

While these personal and emotional impacts are difficult to measure, we here at AirAdvisor believe that bringing these unreported stories to light will raise awareness of how deeply a disrupted flight can upend people’s lives, especially those who have more fragile circumstances to contend with.

This article highlights the firsthand experiences of our clients and illustrates how profoundly delays, cancellations, denied boarding, and missed connections can destroy confidence in air travel and leave emotional scars that can last a lifetime.

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The stories in this article are from real clients, but their personal details have been changed to protect their privacy.

How Flight Disruptions Affect Small Children

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The whole ordeal was an emotional roller coaster for everyone, especially my 6-year old daughter who could not stop crying,

Joan, whose American Airlines flight was cancelled, was travelling with small children. She and her family had planned to visit family who they were only able to see twice a year.

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More than the stress and inconvenience, the worst part was losing time with the family, and that time is absolutely priceless. This flight cancellation made us have to reschedule and reorganise my mom’s 70th surprise birthday party . . . We only visit two times every year.

Another passenger, Angie was travelling with her children when their flight was cancelled. 

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This ruined our holiday, she said. The airline rebooked them but the family was seated apart from one another which “caused huge stress as our 6 year old had to sit on his own and . . .the stress had our kids vomiting.”

Severe Impact on Passengers with Disabilities

Wheelchair Passenger Flight Delay

A flight cancellation caused Giovanna to miss her scheduled medication.

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I was in a lot of pain, numbness, excruciating headaches, more anxiety and panic attacks… I missed an appointment [with the doctor], delayed the injection for knee arthritis, and had to postpone the appointment with the orthopaedic doctor,” she said.

When passengers with mobility issues have to find another flight following a cancellation, they have an uphill battle trying to get the accommodations they originally planned. Not only that but airports, as much as they try to accommodate all travellers, don’t always provide the support some passengers need, especially for extended delays. 

On a United Airlines flight, Andy, who was on his way to a funeral, was told that he and all the other passengers would have to get off the scheduled aircraft to catch a different flight.

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Most of us never made it, especially disabled users reliant on wheelchair assistance like me. [It took] just a little more than an hour to get to the right terminal. By the time my wheelchair assistance got me to a window to negotiate a connecting flight, it was 1am and I was told nothing was available. I ended up sleeping on the ground in the special services section. I missed the funeral and was exhausted for several days after. 

Nadine, and her daughter with disabilities, had a flight cancellation after waiting on the plane for over an hour.

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[They] refused to get my daughter’s medication off the plane. [I] tried to explain my daughter’s needs, and I was refused her medication. My daughter had two seizures in the airport, nose bleeds . . .due to no medication. 

When trying to book an alternate flight, Nadine tried to find a way to sit next to her daughter, but was refused by the airline.

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Two hours into the flight,” she said, “my daughter took a tonic seizure which was so scary! I’m horrified as to the way we [were] treated . . . she actually could have died.

How Pregnant Passengers Are Affected

Pregnant at airport

Pregnant women also face greater risks when they encounter flight disruptions. Stress is widely known to exacerbate complications in pregnancy, and even pregnant women with no complications can be affected by the stress caused by cancellations and long delays.

Tomas, who was travelling with his wife, planned his Delta flight itinerary to better suit his wife’s needs, but they still ran into flight delays.

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“My wife is 6 months pregnant, and we booked these flights specifically because it was less travel time,” he said.

George and his wife also faced long delays.

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American Airlines was useless in getting us another flight. We were delayed for over 24-hours. My wife was pregnant and was forced to hike.

The Emotional Impacts of Disrupted Flights

Significant numbers of air travellers report perceived anxiety related to aspects of travel, and this is associated with health problems during flights. Of the 238 respondents, two thirds were women. Take-off and landing were a perceived source of anxiety for about 40% of respondents, flight delays for over 50%,

When Paula and her husband’s Delta flight was delayed, they missed their connection, and their rebooked flight caused them to miss spending time with their newest grandchild.

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 “I’m an organ transplant recipient with mobility issues,” she said. “My husband has heart issues and is diabetic. We had a difficult time navigating the airport and meeting our medical needs”. 

For passengers like Paula and her husband, a delay and missed connection are much more than an inconvenience. Making their way around large airports and moving from gate to gate with long waiting periods presents some real health challenges and even dangers in situations where medications can’t be taken as planned.

Other passengers miss family events that money can never replace. Cynthia, whose United flight was cancelled said, 

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This was a huge inconvenience as the purpose of my trip . . . was to attend a family wedding - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

Ways to Alleviate the Stress

The negative psychological effects of flight disruptions are real and can sometimes be so severe that they affect physical health as well. One study found that out of 238 passengers, more than 50% reported anxiety because of flight delays that were associated with “health problems during flights”2

So, you might not be able to avoid or eliminate the problems associated with flight delays and cancellations, but there are a few steps you can take to prepare and mitigate the stress. Here are a few practical strategies for all passengers, but especially those with health concerns.

  1. Alert the airline about your specific situation or condition, and tell them about any particular needs you may have. Fortunately, many carriers do try to accommodate elderly, pregnant, and disabled passengers with assistance at the airport and other services to help them during their journey.
  2. If possible, choose direct flights. As you can imagine, direct flights eliminate the problems that stem from missed connections.
  3. Make a travel kit and keep it with you in your carryon bag. Always pack medications with you and not in checked baggage.
  4. Try to arrive at the airport with lots of time to spare. This can alleviate stress and give you some time if you run into problems anywhere in the airport.
  5. Check your flight status before you leave home or your hotel to see if your flight has been delayed or cancelled, and also, download airline apps to help you stay informed of any changes that may occur.
  6. Scope out the airport ahead of time so you know where you can rest if you have flight disruptions. You can usually find maps of airports on the websites.
  7. Look for dedicated family and special needs lanes at the security check and customs. 
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask airline and airport staff for help if you need it. If you have delays or cancellations, ask for support. You’re entitled to meals and other assistance, especially if your delay is longer than 2 hours.

AirAdvisor Expert’s Recap on Your Air Passenger Rights

As you plan your trip, be sure to read up on your rights for wherever you plan to travel. In the United States, the Air Carrier Access Act protects passengers from discrimination. In the EU and UK, your rights for flight disruptions are protected in EU261 and UK261 in addition to regulations for protecting passengers with disabilities. 

Additionally, remember to take some time to get any important documents in order including medical certificates or information about medications. If they’re not already digitised, make sure you take photos so that you aren’t using original copies. This also makes them more easily accessible. As well, make sure to make a list of all your medical contact numbers and other important information that will help you and the airline if you need assistance.

To Wrap Up

While flight disruptions are often measured in terms of time and money lost, the more lasting effects can really be seen in the human and emotional experience these situations can cause. In addition to the literal pain and suffering, flight delays and cancellations can mean missing the last precious moments with a loved one or missing the birth of a grandchild or your best friend’s wedding. 

Perhaps in the future, airlines will begin to show more concern for the broader spectrum of passengers, with special attention paid to the more vulnerable population of travellers so that empathy stays central to their operations. By taking into account the personal impacts of flight disruptions, maybe airlines will see beyond statistics and work to develop a more compassionate industry overall.


References:

1 In 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that around 18.1 million passengers with disabilities travelled by air, based on the assumption that 40% of Americans with disabilities fly. https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2023-10/Summary%20Report%202021.pdf

2 McIntosh IB, Swanson V, Power KG, Raeside F, Dempster C. Anxiety and health problems related to air travel. J Travel Med. 1998 Dec;5(4):198-204. doi: 10.1111/j.1708-8305.1998.tb00507.x. PMID: 9876195

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