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Wow Air: What to do if the airline you're traveling on goes bust

Icelandic budget carrier Wow Air has ceased operations and canceled its flights, leaving passengers stranded around the world.

Posted: Mar 28, 2019 3:41 PM
Updated: Mar 28, 2019 3:41 PM

One minute you're looking forward to your vacation. The next, you find out your airline's gone bust and you're frantically scrambling around for a plan B.

Even worse, you could be suddenly stranded at an airport, unsure how to get home.

That's the reality passengers booked with Icelandic budget carrier Wow Air woke up to on Thursday, as the airline announced it's in financial trouble, has ceased operations and canceled all flights.

So what do passengers do in this situation?

Here's some advice on what you can do before, during and after your travel, to minimize disruption.

Before:

1. Pay for your flights with a credit card

You often buy a flight pretty far in advance -- and so the airline could easily be holding onto your money for a year or more.

That's where paying with your credit card comes in handy, because buying a ticket with a credit card means you'll be more protected if your airline goes under.

In fact, when airlines start to find themselves in financial trouble, credit card processors hold back a larger and larger percentage of the money until the flight occurs. That way, if the airline doesn't perform, the credit card company still has your money and can give it right back to you.

"Various countries have rules that make credit cards, not debit cards liable. So it's worth calling your credit card company and asking them," advises CNN anchor and aviation expert Richard Quest.

2. Keep tabs on your airline

So you might assume your airline's doing well -- especially if, like Wow Air, you could book flights right up until the last moment -- but it's worth keeping tabs on the airline in the lead up to your flight.

This is a particularly good idea if the carrier in question is a less well-known airline. Sure, you'd probably hear about it if Singapore Airlines was in trouble, but what about a smaller, regional airline? Keeping your eyes and ears open is crucial.

Setting up a Google Alert could be a good move, particularly if you're concerned and hearing rumors of difficulties.

Of course, it's tricky when information isn't always forthcoming: in the case of Wow Air, passengers received a cryptic text when the airline shut down, explaining their flight was delayed due to "operational restrictions."

The announcement that flights had permanently ceased was pretty sudden.

According to former Wow Air CEO Skuli Mogensen, who spoke to Icelandic state broadcaster RUV early Thursday, he had faith things would turn around until the last minute.

"Wow had been in financial trouble, they had attempted to merge with Icelandair which failed," says Quest. "They'd attempted to do a deal to somehow sort of share and cooperate with Iceland which failed. The writing was on the wall but Wow just continued to let people book.

"It's an impossible situation when an airline is about to go bust [...] It's always horrific when it does this."

3. Consider your backup plan

It might sound extreme, but having an alternative plan of action is worthwhile, when you can.

Be aware of what other airlines fly the route you're taking and bookmark the pages on your phone so you can pounce on the last seats if something happens.

Of course, this isn't much use in so far as you'll still have to cough up for the new tickets -- but keep scrolling for tips on that front.

During:

1. Don't assume other airlines will help -- but check all the same

Other airlines have no responsibility to honor tickets on failed airlines. These carriers might be able to step up, but it's best to assume you'll get no discounts.

If you're on the phone with the airline representative or lining up at the airport info desk, remember to be as polite and friendly as possible.

Yes, you're worried and angry, but being anything other than pleasant won't get you anywhere.

In the case of Wow Air, Icelandair is offering a discount fare for stranded passengers, given the circumstances.

The fares are only available for passengers who have already embarked on their journey and have a return fare booked between March 28 and April 11, 2019.

For trips to and from Europe fares are $60 and for trips to and from North America it's $100. For those traveling from Europe to North America or vice versa via Iceland's Keflavík International Airport it's $160.

For more information on how to claim these flights, see icelandair.is/getmehome.

Other budget carriers, including EasyJet, may also offer some discounted "rescue" fares.

2. Know your rights

We all book flights using different methods, if you booked via a travel agency, they might be responsible for refunding you, depending on whether flights are covered by travel insurance. The same goes for booking via a partner airline.

Online flight booking service Hopper said it would fully reimburse all customers who booked a Wow Air flight via its platform.

"We have also decided that Hopper will cover the full cost of rebooking for all of our stranded passengers in transit," said the company's CEO and co-founder Frederic Lalonde.

If it's a package vacation, refunds should come via that company.

If you booked directly via Wow Air, it's likely not good news:

"Customers who have booked their tickets directly with the airline do unfortunately have narrow chances of reimbursement of their costs and must address their claims directly to the bankruptcy trustee of the airline," confirms Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp.

3. Check your travel insurance

If you've got travel insurance, check in with the company straight away.

It's also a good idea to be as familiar as possible with your insurance plan before you travel.

Once you've started the insurance claim process, remember to keep all your receipts and documents to hand.

After:

1. Don't panic

For some travelers, their trust in airlines might be irreparably damaged:

"I'm now planning on re-booking on a more reliable airline," Wow Air passenger Alex Spence told CNN. "But honestly, I feel like I can't really trust the longevity of any airline now."

Your airline suddenly going bust is still an extreme scenario, says Quest.

"The chances of your airline going bust before you go are very small," he says.

Quest says that it's very unlikely to happen with major airlines -- they'd buy one another out in this situation.

He gives the example of Norwegian Air.

"People have been talking about Norwegian going out of business forever. But the reality is Norwegian wouldn't go out of business, Norwegian would be bought if it had a problem.

"Is it a possibility on some of the secondary airlines? Absolutely. Which ones? No one can really say."

His top tip? Stick to bigger name airlines, if you can.

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