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During busy spring break period, beware of flight hiccups

The recent tale of the University of Northwestern softball team shows how weather disruptions can have a ripple effect, as travel demand soars again.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Every year, head coach Alicia du'Monceaux looks forward to early March, when her University of Northwestern softball team takes an annual trip to sunny Florida for a slate of non-conference games.  

"For us northern teams," du'Monceaux said, "it's a huge gift."

This past weekend, the Eagles won an impressive five of seven games in Clermont, Fla., before heading to the airport in Orlando for a Saturday morning flight home to the Twin Cities on Sun Country Airlines.

Soon enough, severe weather in the area led Sun Country to cancel their flight. 

"We were really left kind of stranded," du'Monceaux said. "I think on Saturday, almost all flights were grounded at some point, so it really left your options slim."

After spending 15 hours at the Orlando airport on Saturday, du'Monceaux's team struggled to find a way home, ultimately securing three separate flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul on Tuesday. The Eagles then spent three additional days in Orlando — and even scored a trip to SeaWorld through connections with the state of Florida — but the travel fiasco cut into their practice time ahead of this weekend's home opener against Buena Vista University.

"It's an experience they'll never forget," du'Monceaux said, "and hopefully, we don't have to do it again!"

Pay attention to the Eagles' story if you're flying to a tropical climate for spring break in the next few weeks, which are expected to be quite busy at MSP. 

While severe storms, like those seen in Florida this past weekend, are nothing new, they are more disruptive than ever these days.

"When things start to go wrong, they go wrong really, really fast," said Kyle Potter, the executive editor at Thrifty Traveler. "Things fall apart. Airlines don't have the same kind of slack they used to have to pick things up when a bad storm knocks their operation out of whack."

Many airlines experienced issues with the Florida storms this weekend. But Sun Country, the airline booked by the Eagles softball team, told KARE 11 in a statement that "delays and cancellations can have a ripple effect." The airline explained that crews "may time-out (meaning they have to take a mandated rest period) and that compounds the problem of rescheduling travelers. Given high demand for travel in addition to crew and aircraft availability we are limited in our ability to add more capacity."

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In Potter's view, the soaring demand for air travel has exceeded the airlines' staffing capacity, since they shrank so much in the early months of the pandemic through furloughs, layoffs and early retirement packages.

"When you introduce one other element to an operation that's already stretched really thin — maybe a storm, staffing, or IT issue — we've seen all of this and the same thing happens. Airlines are basically forced to cancel flights en masse in order to give themselves the breathing room to catch up again," Potter said. "Airlines just cannot grow fast enough to handle the demand that has clearly grown back."

Your options for rebooking will depend based on the circumstances, but in the U.S., you should always know that you can ask for your money back after a canceled flight.

"You do have the legal right to a refund," Potter said. "Usually, they just make you ask for it."

In the case of the University of Northwestern softball team, the Eagles just had to wait things out in Florida for a few days, before they could secure flights home to Minnesota.

But senior middle infielder Telma Roesler chooses to look on the bright side.

"I think it showed us as a team, that if we stick together, keep a positive mindset, and lean on each other for encouragement," she said, "we can get through anything, on and off the field."

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