Airline honesty will be tested by coming NPRM.
President Biden’s and Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s announcement that they want airlines to be required to pay compensation for delays and cancellations within their control should be popular with Americans regardless of political persuasion. It will, however, test airline honesty.
But there’s a catch, and it’s not just potential industry opposition. It’s the weather exemption and airline honesty.
Weather is one part of a complex excuse for airline delays.
Sometimes bad weather closes airports, and that’s obviously out of the airlines’ control. And sometimes, air traffic control or the FAA puts on a ground stop due to weather. Thunderstorms and lightning issues are especially common.
It makes sense that airlines shouldn’t be penalized for putting safety first and not flying in dangerous weather. And sometimes, lousy weather isn’t apparent. An incoming storm, potential wind, lightning, or all of these can make flying unsafe or result in delays.
Weather is already taken into account by the FAA for some airline delays.
Airlines have known well for years that weather is out of their control, even when it’s simply reporting on-time records. (Weather delays are not counted as a delayed flight.)
Most frequent travelers have plenty of “blue sky” weather delays. These occur when an airline says it’s weather, but you can’t see a cloud in the sky. Again, sometimes airlines know things we don’t.
Here is a realistic example of a missed airline connection.
First, there was a seating delay.
I traveled with my son from San Jose to Denver to Houston some years ago. The full flight appeared to be on time out of San Jose. But the gate agents inexplicably put a family of four, with two young children, in an exit row. When they got on board, the flight attendants (furious enough to talk about it loudly enough that passengers could hear) worked on sorting things out, offering free drinks to people who would move to accommodate the family together. This delayed the flight by probably 20 minutes.
Next, we had a weather delay.
When we got to the runway and sat briefly, the pilot said, “Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen. Unfortunately, a storm is coming through, and we must wait until it passes.”
So we waited, and our connection, initially over an hour, got tighter. Still, we finally took off, made up a little time, and were going to land about 30 minutes before our connection. Except, at the last second, we aborted the landing for an unspecified reason.
The flight circled and landed successfully.
We finally landed. It was under 15 minutes before the connecting flight. We ran like crazy, made it to the gate, and saw a closed door, with the gate agents saying, “Sorry, the flight is closed.” We waited at the gate for another 10 minutes until the plane finally pulled away.
The customer service agent first claimed it was a weather delay.
The capper to all this, when I went to customer service to ask about a hotel voucher, knowing there were no options until the morning, the woman said, “Sorry, tomorrow is fine to reissue your ticket, but we can’t compensate you since this is a weather delay.” I politely related the story I wrote above. She said, “Okay,” and printed a hotel voucher with meal vouchers.
Why do the airlines blame the weather?
This isn’t that unusual a story. But the short version, given a chance, airlines will blame the weather even if it’s a small portion of the problem.
Delays and missed connections always have many causes.
And to be fair, many delays are multi-faceted. Maybe there’s a catering issue. Maybe there’s a baggage issue. Perhaps an earlier flight had a mechanical issue, Or an incoming crew member has been dealing with a weather delay. Which is the “official” one?
Will the NPRM (if it happens) solve the grey area questions?
As a travel agent, I’ve had clients treated really well by airlines when it’s a grey area, and others not so well. And often in those latter cases, it’s just a question of whether I or the traveler want to write up a complaint to customer relations in hopes of some compensation. (Sadly, this usually means a refund that must be booked directly with the airline, not a travel agent, but that’s another post.)
The EU already has rules about required compensation; presumably, they’ve worked some of the kinks out. Hopefully, those in Congress and their staff can learn from the EU experience. But I hope that if and when this compensation rule is instituted, DOT puts some “rules of the road” — or rather, of the air — in place to be fair to both the airlines and consumers.
Sorry, it’s the weather — an airline’s honesty answer without compensation.
While travelers can fight for their rights, and travel agents fight on their behalf, travelers stuck for hours or overnight have enough stress. They shouldn’t have to wonder if it’s airline honesty when agents say, “Sorry, it’s the weather” as an answer to a request for compensation.
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Janice Hough is a California-based travel agent a travel blogger and a part-time comedy writer. A frequent flier herself, she’s been doing battle with airlines, hotels, and other travel companies for over three decades. Besides writing for Travelers United, Janice has a humor blog at Leftcoastsportsbabe.com (Warning, the political and sports humor therein does not represent the views of anyone but herself.)