By Joe Brancatelli
March 6, 2014 --The question is timely since travel tracker FlightStats reports a brutal and unprecedented pattern of travel disruptions this winter. During the first three days of March, there were at least 7,000 cancellations and 15,000 delays. During February, around 41,000 flights were scrubbed and 200,000 more delayed. In January, one in three domestic flights ran late and about 7 percent more of them were cancelled.

So where do your rights, airline actions and the weather intersect? Sadly, you're almost always the loser since we can't fool Mother Nature, airline "contracts of carriage" are comically one-sided and federal regulations are frequently mute in the face of inclement conditions.

Words behind the waivers
Let's start at the beginning, when forecasters predict bad weather and airlines react by posting "travel waivers." In theory, waivers allow you to change your tickets in the face of an imminent blizzard, a storm or other schedule-busting weather event. In practice, waivers are often useless.

For starters, you must understand that airlines are not required to issue waivers at all. If they do, the terms and conditions are entirely up to them. Your rights to change your tickets for a new flight extend only as far as the airlines grant you flexibility.

Until a few years ago, this wasn't really an issue since airlines posted generous waivers that permitted you to rebook your travel for weeks or months into the future. Today, not so much. Even in this winter's most brutal and unpredictable storms, airlines offered waivers only for one or two days worth of flights and they only allowed you to change your travel a few days into the future. It caused a cattle call on the phone lines and long holds.

Your only recourse: Unrestricted tickets that allow you to cancel or change reservations without relying on the kindness of waivers. The problem? Unrestricted tickets often cost as much as ten times more than the least-expensive nonrefundable seats.

The cancellation conundrum
If you're a savvy business traveler, you often know when, what routes and what flights an airline will cancel long before the carrier announces it. But lots of luck using that logic on the airline. You have zero rights to change flights or get a refund until the airline itself cancels the flight. And there is no government rule on when, why or if an airline must cancel in the face of bad weather.

What happens when an airline does, finally, cancel your flight? Your rights remain surprisingly limited. In fact, your only legally enshrined option is a refund. However, it could take days or weeks for an airline to process that refund, so smart fliers contact their credit card company immediately to dispute the charge.

But what happens if you don't want a refund and need to reschedule? Once again, the airline is in charge. Your right to apply your ticket price to another flight without extra cost is solely in the airline's discretion. Most will work to reaccommodate you, of course, but they aren't required to make any particular seat on any particular flight on any particular airline available to you. Some will require that your new flight be within the same travel and fare classes as your original flight. That's especially tricky now that the airlines fill 80 percent or more of their seats even before weather disruptions. (By the way, it's now rare when one airline will "endorse" your ticket to another carrier for an available flight. You can ask, of course, but it just doesn't happen all that frequently anymore.)

Increasingly, airline computer systems will automatically rebook you and notify you of the change when the carrier cancels your original flight. But as too many fliers learned this winter, these auto-rebooks are frequently capricious, often ridiculous and almost always a strain on your schedule. You aren't required to accept the rebooking that an airline's computers arrange, of course. Assuming you can reach the carrier by phone to contest the changes, you can try to rebook more felicitous options. But if the airline tells you no or claims there are no other available seats, there's no recourse but a refund.

Make-good mania
Even smart fliers travel under the misperception that airlines must offer tangible perks such as meal vouchers or hotel rooms if a storm hits and flights are snarled. Not true. Since the airlines refuse to guarantee their schedules, they're under no obligation to offer a make-good for your inconvenience. The one exception: If your flight is cancelled mid-journey and you are stranded somewhere between your origin and destination. Airlines will often—but not always—offer assistance with food and lodging. However, I've found that it usually isn't worth waiting in the long queues for meal and hotel vouchers. You're better off making your own arrangements. Keep all of the relevant receipts and argue with the airline later about reimbursement.

Buyer's remorse
A recent package of regulatory reforms from the Department of Transportation does give fliers a new right in the ticket-buying process: a 24-hour "hold" or refund option when you purchase a ticket. But that right is rarely practical in a bad-weather scenario. The reason: the 24-hour rule only applies when you purchase your ticket at least seven days before departure.

No flight for you
What if an airline does operate a flight, you hold a valid ticket and they "bump" you? There are specific federal regulations that govern both "voluntary" and "involuntary" denied boarding. But be warned: Customer-facing airline employees are often woefully under-educated about the rules. And, not coincidentally, this lack of knowledge accrues to the benefit of the airline, not you. The only way you can guarantee you are treated fairly when you are involuntarily bumped is to know the rules and carry a print out of your rights with you. Even then, expect push back from many airline agents. But hold fast, albeit politely.

The luggage left behind
Despite urban legends about lost and "mishandled" luggage, airlines do a decent job of flying passengers and their checked bags on the same flight. And they do a remarkably good job of eventually reuniting those few misconnected bags with their owners. Still, luggage does go awry with much greater frequency in bad weather as airlines cancel, delay and reroute flights. The best way to ensure your bags aren't lost or mislaid is not to check them. Carry on or ship ahead with UPS, FedEx or a reliable specialist like Luggage Forward. If that's not practical, at least know the regulations governing lost and mishandled luggage.

Prisoners no more
The Transportation Department has cracked down on "long tarmac holds," a despicable airline practice of keeping travelers prisoners on a plane for hour after hour without food, beverages, adequate lavatory facilities or emotional and physical recourse. But they still happen—several Southwest Airlines jets were stuck last month at Chicago's Midway Airport — and your best defense is knowledge of the rules and your rights. It also wouldn't hurt to stock your carry-on bag with water and shelf-stable snacks during the winter weather.

And in the end...
After more than three decades on the road, my best advise for traveling during adverse weather is this: Know your rights—and when you're powerless. Stick up for those rights, but remember that kindness and respect generally get you better service than banging your fists on the ticket counter. Consider using a good travel agent since agents can cut through some bad-weather snarls. Most of all, though, be Zen about it all. When a foot of snow blankets the airport—or a tropical storm drenches the region—you need to go with the flow, have a backup room at an airport hotel and telecommute until conditions improve.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.