Problem Solvers: What to do if you feel powerless, victimized by airlines’ cancellations

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Stuck in an airport? Tired, Bored, exasperated? It's not a happy state, but one that experts say is becoming all too common.

Taylor Ruiz and her boyfriend Jacob Matthys can tell you about it. They were supposed to fly from Kansas City to New York City on a Tuesday in July fora family reunion. But after they landed in Detroit to change planes, they learned their connecting flight to New York had been canceled.

Spirit Airlines insisted it was because of bad weather, although the weather was fine both in Detroit and New York City.

"All the other airlines were still flying to New York City," Ruiz said.

But Spirit Airlines told the young couple that it couldn't get them to New York until possibly Friday. That's the day before their vacation was supposed to end.

Spirit also offered them the option of flying them out the next day, but said it could only get them as far as Atlantic City.

"We got to Atlantic City and then had to figure out our way from there," Matthys said, shaking his head.

They finally reached their destination by bus, a day late and $200 poorer after shelling out for bus fare and a hotel room in Detroit.

Consumer advocates say it's not just Spirit Airlines that is leaving passengers stranded. Charles Leocha, who writes a consumer blog called Travel Rights, says passengers on nearly every major airline are at risk once a flight has been canceled.

"Airlines used to have extra planes sitting around but not anymore," Leocha said.

Data from the Department of Transportation shows flights are at more than 83 percent capacity, an average of 2 empty seats per plane. So if your flight is canceled, good luck on finding a seat on the next flight.

And if you are a family traveling together, Leocha said, "you are in big trouble."

But aren't airlines required to find you a seat on another airline if they can't get you to your destination? No they are not. In fact, no frills airlines like Spirit don't have agreements with other airlines to accomodate stranded passengers.

Airlines say they work hard to keep customers happy, but if you aren't happy what are your rights?

Leocha said your ticket is the same as a contract. The airline is required to get you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. But reasonable is the key word. Some airlines believe as long as they provide you with a flight within the same week or even month, that's reasonable.

What can you do?

"I would be indignant and say if you can't help me get me your supervisor," Leocha said. "Get me someone who can help me."

Or you can demand a refund. Spirit actually offered Ruize and Matthys their money back, but at that point they were stuck in Detroit  with no way of getting back to Kansas City.

We suggested they write a letter of complaint to the Department of Transportation. Airlines pay attention to those complaints, or at least most do.

A United Airline traveler, who found himself in similar bind, followed that advice and got a full refund from United within two days of writing to the feds. But when Ruiz and Matthys tried the same approach with Spirit, it didn't budge. It insisted it had done everything it could --- more than legally required --- to get them to their destination. While Spirit Airlines may be satisfied with its actions, Ruiz and Matthys definitely aren't.

"I'm never going to do this airline again," Matthys said.

To report problems, click here for the Department of Transportation link.