If you haven’t been online in the past week, chances are you’ve heard about the temporary shut down of all air traffic by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Last Wednesday, as a West Coast-based traveler planning an in-state trip I awoke to the news of numerous flight cancellations. My flight to departure was scheduled to depart an hour late. However, my return flight would likely be on time. Wrong. Let’s get to the bottom of it.

What happened?

A ground stop was ordered for all aircraft on Wednesday, January 11, after an overnight outage to FAA’s Notice to Air Mission (or NOTAM) system. It took place at 8:15 AM. While operations resumed gradually as the day progressed however, there were still many cancellations and delays throughout the country.

Flight tracking company FlightAware reported that more than 10,000 U.S. flights were delayed as of Jan. 11, at 8:30 p.m. ET, and nearly 1,200 were cancelled.

According to preliminary reports, this was due to a corrupted database file. But what did it look like for all the thousands of people who were left on the ground? Let me tell you, I was one of them.

The airport was in chaos

My 10:15 AM departure flight was delayed an hour. I did not hear anything about my return flight at 3:15 PM. I was waiting on the taxi stand for my outbound flight as I sat on the tarmac, waiting to be towed. What was the problem? I had to be there on time in order to celebrate my birthday with my family.

The airport was chaotic when I finally arrived in San Francisco. People were running around trying to get to the gates, crews were timed out, and flights were delayed.

How elite status saved the world

My original flight schedule was going to cause me to miss dinner because of delays due to the FAA outage. I spent the 90 minute flight north trying to find a way to use the in-flight WiFi. I was surprised to find that United Airlines had a flight that would take me home on schedule.

Only problem? The only problem was that it was now past the flight’s original departure hour of 1:07 p.m. so it was impossible for me to buy a ticket. Like many other flights in the country, it had been delayed by an hour to 2:20 p.m. so I knew it hadn’t taken off yet.

The United messaging agent couldn’t help me so I purchased a ticket for a later flight and tried to change it to the 2:20 p.m. flight. No dice. Instead, I called the Premier 1K number immediately upon landing in San Francisco and ran for the United gate on that yet-departed flight.

The United elite top-tier members have access to their phone line. Premier 1K members can be routed immediately to an agent, rather than waiting on hold or searching for an in-airport representative.

Even though I tried all other options to change my flight, such as United’s messaging representative, they wouldn’t allow me to change my flight to the 2 :20 p.m. option. However Premier 1K’s phone agent allowed me to do so.

Because the 2:20 p.m. flight was constantly delayed, I ended up spending six hours at San Francisco’s airport. Because I was still waiting for my flight, I was finally able to go to the AmEx Centurion Lounge.

Each time my flight was delayed further, I called the 1K desk several times. United Premier members are eligible to make free changes within 24 hours of departure. I asked to be transferred to another flight and was not charged any additional. These new flights were unfortunately also delayed or cancelled.

Only after another flight was canceled, did I dial the 1K number to make one final adjustment. I was able to get a seat on the United flight that I had booked for 2:20 p.m., despite it being boarding. You are not permitted to book a flight that is already boarding. However, the 1K phone agent was capable of making it possible, and without my elite status.

Although I missed my dinner, I arrived five hours late. But I was able to get home that night.

What should you do if your flight is canceled or delayed

Even though you may not be an elite pilot, there are still ways to make your flight plan work.

  • Avoid the busy airport agents when you need to make a flight change. Instead, call the airport customer service center while you wait. They are less busy, so you have a better chance of getting help.

  • Know your rights. Many airlines have agreements that will allow you to fly on another airline’s flight in case of delays or cancellations. These “Commitments to Controllable Cancellations”, which are listed on the handy Airline Customer Service Dashboard by the Transportation Department, can be accessed for quick reference. You can ask for a change of flight if your original plan isn’t feasible.

What can you expect from different carriers to cancel your order for “controllable cancellation,” according to the DOT?

Book on partner airline, or other airline with whom it has an agreement for no additional charge

If a flight cancellation causes a passenger to wait 3 hours or more for a new flight, they will be served supper or cash vouchers.

Free ground transportation from and to the hotel for passengers who are affected by an overnight cancellation

Alaska Airlines

Allegiant Air

American Airlines

Delta Air Lines

Frontier Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines

JetBlue Airways

Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

United Airlines

Flight delays don’t mean the end of the world

It is never easy to lose your travel plans. If you are an airline elite member, you will be the first to get accommodations. You’ll be able to contact an agent immediately, at the very least.

If you are unable to wait, call your airline customer service center. Keep the DOT dashboard handy.

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