What Happens When Your Flight Gets Diverted

When was the last time you had a travel “first?” My husband and I don’t actually have a lot of “firsts” when it comes to travel anymore, but last summer, we both had a big one: Our flight was diverted! 

We were traveling from Nashville (BNA) to our home airport, IAD. It’s usually scheduled for about two hours, but really it’s more like an hour and 20 minutes in the air. No big deal… Unless there’s weather, and weather there was! We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we weren’t in any danger, so I thought it might be fun (and useful!) to write a blog post about it. So, here you go!

Why Planes Get Diverted

Planes get diverted for all kinds of reasons, not just catastrophes. For us, it was a pesky weather system right over IAD, meaning we couldn’t land. We circled for a while, taking in the views of western Maryland and West Virginia, but eventually we got to a crucial timeframe for our fuel. To avoid running out of fuel while we waited, we landed at Pittsburgh’s airport, about 200 or so miles away, to refuel and wait until we could fly out and land at IAD.

Aside from weather, an airplane could be diverted for a medical emergency that can’t be stabilized or resolved in-flight. Almost every plane in the air over or enroute to the USA was diverted on 9/11 due to the terrorist attacks. If there is a major maintenance issue in-flight, you may need to be diverted. Occasionally, an unruly passenger could cause and entire plane full of people to divert so that one passenger could be removed. 

While it’s not terribly common, it does happen, and it’s usually not catastrophic, just inconvenient!

You may land at a major airport, or on a tiny island–whatever is closest and most convenient!
Essential, just in case: The Best Snacks to Pack for the Flight

What to Expect

Whatever the reason for a flight diversion, it’s always useful to be prepared and know the general rules and procedures. You’ll be back on your way in due time. As with so many other situations, step one is: Don’t panic. Here are some other things to know.

You can get off the plane (but must take your carry-on with you)

If you need to stretch your legs, calm a screaming child, or just don’t want to wait on the plane, you can leave. You will have to take your things with you (do not leave any personal property on the plane), but the crew is required by law to let you off if you wish.

Just don’t miss it when the plane takes off again!
Read on: How to Pack the Perfect Carry-on

You can go to the bathroom

Yes, you can take your seatbelt off while the plane is stopped on the tarmac, and yes, you may use the restroom! Your crew will let you know when it’s time to return to your seat before you take off again. 

Yes, you can go to the bathroom.
Read next: The Top 7 Solo Female Travel Skills

Your Aircraft will need to refuel or wait out weather

Like us, you may need to refuel and/or wait out the weather. The crew can usually tell you about how long it will take to refuel your aircraft, but waiting out the weather is definitely less predictable. Just know it might take a while, and use your patience. The crew and everyone else on the plane is at least as inconvenienced as you!

Safety is very important–more important than anyone’s schedule!
Related: How Not to Let Rainy Days Ruin Your Travels

What to Do if You Miss Your Connection

One major concern if you’re on a flight that gets diverted is the issue of making your connection. Maybe you’ll make it, maybe you won’t. This wasn’t a problem for us, since IAD was our final destination, but IAD is also a major hub and international airport. Several of our fellow passengers were intending to connect to other flights, some of which were once-a-day, international flights. So, what’s a passenger to do?

Consider driving to your final destination

This is not a possibility for everyone, but if your final destination is close enough, this is an option to think about. Just to be safe, call your airline directly first to ask if this will ultimately void your return trip, if applicable. This is really only a good idea if you are already on your return flights home, not the beginning of your trip. 

Remember that driving home is an option if absolutely necessary.
More here: What to Do If Your Flight is Cancelled

Call to get a new flight and check the airline’s app

Another option is to call your airline directly, or check your airline’s app, to see if you can change to a different connecting flight. I know, you’ll most likely get an automated system at first, and you may be on hold before you can speak with a representative. But the fact of the matter is, you will need to (figuratively) “get in line.” Loads of people from your flight will be trying to change flights just like you, and there may not be enough good options to go around if you wait!

Call as soon as you can, and just wait on the line!
Keep reading: What to Do When You Miss Your Connection

Want more? Get all my best air travel tips and info on my dedicated Air Travel Page!

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