How travelers can challenge the industry’s “act of God” excuses

It’s the time of year when the travel industry likes to play the weather card. Couldn’t check into your hotel? Blame it on that distant tornado. Flight canceled? It’s the hurricane’s fault, even though it’s hundreds of miles away. A big repair bill for your rental car? Thank last week’s hailstorm.

Usually, the weather — often referred to as an “act of God” in a ticket contract — is a perfectly legitimate reason for a delay or a service interruption. But not always.

Shannon Duane remembers a recent US Airways flight from Jacksonville, Fla., to Charlotte on a holiday weekend. As she prepared to board, she saw a bolt of lightning across the airfield. The airline announced that it would delay boarding for another 15 minutes because of the thunderstorm.

“That was fine with me,” says Duane, an attorney who lives in San Clemente, Calif. “I understood the reason for the delay.”

But not what happened next. Even after the lightning strikes stopped and the storm moved on a few moments later, her flight lingered at the gate. It waited another hour before boarding, causing her and her family to miss a connection. To reach her final destination, she had to rent a car in Charlotte, which the airline didn’t cover because the delay was weather-related.

She wonders: Was the storm just one reason — but not the main reason— for the holdup? She asked an airline representative after landing. “They admitted that the weather did not stop them from taking off,” she says. “I think they absolutely could have departed on time.”

Lightning near the field closes the ramp for safety reasons, according to US Airways spokesman John McDonald. This means that no bags can be loaded onto the plane, all fueling must be stopped, catering is suspended and no crew walkaround inspections can take place. Even if the storm clears and an on-time departure is technically possible, there’s one last hurdle: air traffic.

“The FAA routing system operates at near capacity on most good days,” McDonald adds. “So one or two strong storms in the wrong place can wreak unseen havoc — and confusion — for the average traveler.”

Last winter, I suggested in this column that airlines should consider revising their passenger contracts to more clearly describe what happens when schedules can’t be kept. Among other changes, I recommended including a clause providing for a prompt, unambiguous disclosure of the reason for a flight delay. (Did they listen to me? No.)

Since then, it has become clear that this problem isn’t limited to airlines.

Readers shared stories of hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines and travel insurance companies invoking the “Act of God” clause in their contracts, which lets them off the hook for bad weather or any other natural disasters that prevent them from offering a service. I also heard from travelers who admitted that they, too, had pulled the weather card, using it to secure a refund for a nonrefundable hotel room.

Howard Altschule told me that weather is unfairly blamed for all kinds of problems, and he ought to know. He’s a forensic meteorologist based in Albany, N.Y., and gets paid to tell clients when an “act of God” is, well, an act of God.

“Some scenarios,” he says, “are more obvious than others.”

Professional meteorologists usually follow the National Weather Service when it comes to advisories, he explains. So, for example, when government meteorologists issue a tornado warning, the rest of the weather community tends to fall in line behind it and make the same recommendations.

And when it doesn’t, Altschule’s phone rings. His company, Forensic Weather Consultants, is helping several businesses that closed during superstorm Sandy last year after governments declared a state of emergency and ordered evacuations. The companies filed insurance claims for business interruption but were denied compensation.

“Weather is what I like to call the all-purpose excuse,” says Michael Smith, a senior vice president at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions in Wichita. He recalls ordering flowers for his wife last Valentine’s Day. When the bouquet didn’t arrive on time, his florist blamed an ice storm. True, the area had experienced an ice storm — one week earlier.

Challenging a travel company’s assertions about weather doesn’t require a doctorate in meteorology, says Smith. For example, when an airline invokes the weather, you can click on the Federal Aviation Administration Web site to check for airport weather delays. A green dot means that the airport is open and unaffected by the weather. Another site, Flightstats, offers detailed information about your flight, including the official reason for any delay.

If the weather reports don’t jibe with a company’s claims, Smith recommends whipping out your smartphone. Snapping a screenshot of the FAA site and a corresponding photo of the airport flight arrivals and departures board may give you enough information to challenge the “weather” excuse. Remember, if the delay is caused by something else, such as a mechanical problem, then most airline contracts require the carrier to offer meal vouchers and accommodations when there’s an overnight delay.

Janice Hough, a travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif., says that sometimes a compelling story will do the trick. On a recent United Airlines flight from Orlando to San Francisco, her baggage was initially delayed because of thunderstorms in the area, but the delay was extended when her airline couldn’t find a truck to serve the plane. She could see the spectacle unfolding from her window seat as the plane prepared for takeoff.

“I didn’t have a video camera to record it,” she remembers.

United initially refused to offer her any compensation for the delayed luggage, invoking the weather clause in its contract, but when she told a representative the whole story, the airline caved and offered her a voucher.

The same strategy works for a car rental bill. If a company tries to stick you with a repair invoice for flood or hail damage, your own time-stamped digital photos of the car taken with your cellphone may get you off the hook. A new iPhone and Android app called Rental Pics can also help. The program automatically creates a file containing all the pictures associated with a rental and allows you to make any damage notations.

Smith says that a forensic meteorologist can generate a hail report that could exonerate you for as little as $100. When you’re faced with a five-digit damage bill, that may be a sound investment.

Bottom line? Keep an eye on the weather this summer. Because the travel industry likes to play the weather card — whether it should or not.

Do travel companies play the weather card too often?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    what really sucks is- all flights come from some place. so a flight from San Francisco- New York, can be “weather delayed” because the plane they were planing on using is stuck in a storm in Portland, Oregon.

  • ewkcpa

    The airlines should not be allowed to use weather as a excuse for not providing service unless the weather at the locations to be served causes the problem. The failure of a plane to get from point A to point B because of weather at point A is not a weather excuse for not providing service from point B to point C- that is an inventory problem. If a company agrees to provide a cake, the fact that a shipment of flour is delayed so the cake is late means they did not plan their supply needs sufficiently to take into account reasonably expected disruptions in their supply chain. In any other business, it is the service providers responsibility to have sufficient inventory on hand to meet the commitments to their customers- or to provide consideration for not having met their commitments.

  • TonyA_says

    You obviously have not read your contract of carriage(s) this morning.
    Also the spare inventory you are talking about are in the hundreds of millions (cost) and we really do not have spare airports nearby, too, where logistics can easily be reassigned.
    Sorry this ain’t like baking a cake.

  • Kip Hartwell

    I don’t get the hail damage one. I mean: an act of god is an act of god. If insurance wont pay a customer because of it, why would the customer have to pay. God said smite that car! I am not going to pay for that.

  • EdB

    In regards to hail damage on a rental car, I agree that the renter should not have to pay for that. The odds are that the car would get damaged regardless if it was rented or not. I doubt most rental lots keep all their cars under cover. I guess the only time that *MAYBE* the renter could be asked to cover the damage is if they took the car further away from the lot than the hail storm occured. The argument could be if they had stayed closer to the rental location, it wouldn’t have been damaged by the hail. However, I don’t accept that type of argument.

  • Hal

    The “weather” delay, to me, should not be allowed as a excuse period. While the COC allows them to us it, I don’t think it should be allowed to be in there. Why? If a weather delay prevents me from getting to the airport on time for my flight, you think the airline is going to reaccommodate me without having to pay something? From what has been talked about in this blog, I would say no. Now they may let you use the “flat tire” excuse and take care of you, but maybe not. If the airline is allowed to use the weather to keep from having to compensate you for not getting you to your destination on time as agreed on by the purchase of the ticket, they should not be allowed to penalize the traveler when the weather prevents them from getting to their flight on time.

  • Guest

    Poor planning on your part does not make an emergency on me. As ewkcpa said in his post, the problem with no plane from point B to C because of weather at point A is an inventory problem, not a weather delay.

  • Bill___A

    I’ve never had them lie about the weather. Not even once.

  • TonyA_says

    Some of these complainers don’t read or know about the FAA Ground Delay Programs either and think the airlines are just lying :)

  • Mark Harvey

    So airlines should have extra planes lying around at every airport in case of delays elsewhere?

    A plane on the ground is a plane not making money, which makes for higher airfare. Airlines literally cannot afford to have extra planes just sitting around for cases like this. People are obviously willing to accept a few delays in exchange for lower airfare. If an airline out there could offer 100% on time capabilities, but had to charge more to ensure there were plenty of extra planes stationed everywhere, no one would buy their tickets.

  • Bill___A

    I fly about 50,000 miles a year. Although I am no stranger to delays, they are usually pretty good about saying whether it is weather related or not. Generally speaking, I do get to my destination on the day intended, even if it is sometimes late. However, I am prepared to take care of myself when need be, and don’t expect the airlines to babysit. I do wish they would let us know when delays are as they know. It is annoying to see the flight board unchanged when the departure time is shown to be in five minutes and the plane is not there yet.
    I do use flightstats.

  • Bill___A

    Lots of them have their cars under cover, actually. Especially where they have the facilities in airport “parkade like” facilities. Although I agree they should take that risk, one should have insurance in some manner when renting.

  • TonyA_says

    I also subscribe to their, as well as flightaware’s, alert (text messaging) when I travel or when I have to pick up or take someone to the airport.

  • Bill___A

    Take into consideration the realities of the situation. Airlines are a business. Having never experienced a situation where I’ve been lied to about weather situations, I am not having an issue with this. Yes, if the plane starts in Boston, flies to Houston, I get on in Houston and fly to Ft. Lauderdale – and there is a weather delay in Boston which affects the arrival of that plane, then it is indeed a weather caused delay. It isn’t whether I am in the delay, it is all about the plane.
    I don’t fight with the airlines, I cooperate with them. Works much better.

  • Bill___A

    Yeah, it happens. The airlines have to deal with it and so do you.

  • Carchar

    I just had the experience of both my planes from Newark to Toronto and back again being canceled on United, due to weather. It was clear in Newark and arriving passengers said that Toronto weather was pleasant as well. Air Canada accommodated us on standby and I was put on the last plane, arriving at my hotel at 3 a.m. instead of early evening. No big deal for me, as I was at leisure.

    On the return, weather was the excuse, although it was beautiful in Toronto and Newark. Air Canada would not take me on this time. However, a kind gate agent put me up at the YYZ Sheraton, and gave me $38 in meal vouchers. I didn’t expect it, nor ask for it, but I didn’t refuse it. Other people were referred to a different desk to be rescheduled. The next day, my plane took off almost on time in nasty, rainy, turbulent weather all the way from Toronto to Newark. Go figure…

  • Cybrsk8r

    I got a rental car in Omaha last year that looked like it had a run-in with a ball-peen hammer. I went back in to tell the rental agent who said, “Don’t worry about it”. Well, I did worry about it. I forced the guy to walk out with me and note the hail damage on the rental contract. He was not a happy camper.

  • Miami510

    Some years ago I had a flight from Philadelphia to Buffalo to Toronto. It was a one-day round trip. The Philadelphia flight was delayed because it was snowing in Buffalo.
    Finally the plane left. After arrival in Buffalo, the Toronto leg was cancelled because the Toronto airport was closed. They flew me back to Philadelphia through New York, and then refused to give me a ticket for another trip to Toronto.

    A little investigation showed that the Toronto Airport was closed because of snow before my flight from Philadelphia took off. When faced with that evidence, they returned all my money.

    Another time (and I’ve written about this before) our flight was cancelled “because of mechanical problems.” I inadvertently heard that there was no mechanical problem; the airline needed the plane for a flight to another city. When confronted with the truth and my threat to go to the FAA, the AIC offered us two, free, round-trip-anywhere
    in the US in the form of miles.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    The comprehensive part of your auto insurance will cover acts of God, such as hail damage. So your argument that insurance won’t pay is null and void. The reasons why people don’t think they should have to pay for damage to rentals is hilarious.

    If it happens while you have the car, it’s on you. Period. You sign a contract agreeing to this. You don’t get to pick and choose what parts of the contract you want to have apply. I’m waiting for someone to argue, “it was raining really hard and that caused me to crash, I’m not paying because it’s an act of God!”

    If you don’t Iike how car rental companies operate, don’t rent cars.

  • bayareascott

    The post that got downvoted repeatedly? You may assert whatever you want, but that is not part of the contract between the passenger and the airline. Weather in a third city is not “poor planning” by any definition.

  • bayareascott

    I do believe that on some occasions people get misinformed. I don’t believe it is intentional. Front line staff would rather be able to issue a hotel for you. That is a much easier transaction. But they are not going to risk getting in trouble by issuing one for a situation their employer says not to. So front line employees have ZERO INCENTIVE to lie about weather delays.

  • bayareascott

    Planes can travel in inclement weather, but not usually a full flight schedule at some of the busiest airports like Newark when there are problems. Things like fog and winds can cause air traffic slowdowns. If it was clear and there were high winds, that will cause air traffic controllers to slow down the traffic and flights may be cancelled. Unless you are an air traffic controller, looking out the window is not sufficient to determine if there are air traffic issues.

  • sirwired

    It’s not realistic to expect airlines to have a very large pile of “spare” planes and crews scattered throughout the system waiting to rush in at a moment’s notice. At least, not unless you want your airfare to skyrocket.

  • sirwired

    You cannot determine the validity of a weather delay by looking at the airport FAA flight delay map, nor are all airports listed on that map. And weather can delay planes due to weather en-route, not just weather at the source or destination. And some weather that effects planes, such as winds aloft, doesn’t even appear on non-aviation weather reports. And for airports not on the FAA map, planes can be held or delayed due to things like crosswinds, which won’t be apparent by checking, unless you also happen to know the runway numbers for that airport.

    Not to mention the (valid) excuse that the plane was tied up earlier in the day, and hasn’t caught up yet.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    At least the windshield was replaced on that one. I read in our local paper about all the broken windows on cars in the rental and long-term parking lots at Eppley.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    So, if a blizzard hits Denver everybody flies for free? The difference between you getting yourself to the airport and them getting you to the final destination is that you can leave hours early if you think the conditions warrant it. But I doubt you’d like it if your flight left a couple hours early while you were still en route to the airport because they saw bad weather on the horizon.

  • Michael__K

    You obviously have not read your contract of carriage(s) this morning.

    The contracts don’t define what a weather delay is. The precise criteria for weather delay determinations (if it exists) is not fully disclosed to the customer.

    Not to mention, no one believes in all the stuff in the contracts. For example, if you pay extra for a premium seat and aren’t allowed to sit in a premium seat, show me one person who thinks that no refund is warranted.

    Sorry this ain’t like baking a cake.

    Customers ultimately pay one way or another no matter what.

    The question is: do we demand that the carriers bake some minimum standards and protections into their prices? Or do we dump all the costs for these logistical risks on a few unlucky passengers?

    Sure, you could tell everyone to just get insurance. But (a) that will cost passengers even more (insurers have to make a profit too and insurance includes lots more that the pax may not need/want) and (b) you will still have unlucky passengers who are stranded by “weather” delays that are not covered.

  • emanon256

    20+ years ago back when I only flew 3 or 4 trips a year, I thought the airlines were lying. I remember sitting in LGA seeing UA planes leave while DL said my plane was delayed due to weather and it was perfectly sunny out and the plane was sitting there. Now that I have learned how the logistics work, I completely understand that while I had a plane and it was sunny, the inbound plane with my crew were delayed due to a storm in ATL. If DL had an extra crew sitting around in LGA, my ticket would have probably cost $100 more. And in many more situations the plane itself is delayed due to weather where it is coming from. If each airline had multiple backup planes and crews at each non-hub airport, ticket prices would double.

    I wish they would give more details though, and some agents due, but I think the official codes are limited to a few characters, so they call weather WX and Mechanical MX, etc. In a perfect world, they would say aircraft delayed due to weather where plane was coming from. Or aircraft delayed due to 15 min ground stop due and low ceilings that lead to 2 hour traffic backup.

  • emanon256

    Often times my Boston to Denver flight was canceled or severely delayed due to weather when it was sunny in Boston and sunny in Denver. However, in each case there was a huge weather system moving through the Midwest that required planes to be diverted several hundred miles north of south of the storm resulting in very little air traffic being allowed through or around the storm. And it was also sunny and nice int he Midwest as it was a high altitude weather system not resulting in storms on the ground, but was very unsafe for planes to pass through.

    Nasty turbulent rainy weather is often safer to fly in than some of the high altitude severe weather systems.

  • Michael__K

    If DL had an extra crew sitting around in LGA, my ticket would have probably cost $100 more.

    Do Europeans pay well over $100 more for each ticket to be protected from this and much more?

    If it’s not economical then they don’t need to have an extra crew sitting around. In that case treat it like other delays and compensate the passengers for unexpected overnight costs and/or help them get to their destination by other means if possible.

  • Chester P. Chucklebutt

    If a plane flying Boston -> Kansas City -> Houston is delayed because of snow in Boston, the Boston -> Kansas City leg should be considered weather delay; the Kansas City -> Houston leg should not. Those flying from Kansas City -> Houston have no care nor no responsibility as to where the plane comes from, only that a plane be there to take them on their merry way.

  • PeriMedic

    I have my share of complaints about airlines and what they’ve become. But they’ve become what they are because of a demand for ridiculously low fares: the house my parents bought in 1977 is now worth 800% more than what they paid, but the airline ticket of today is 20% more. Everyone wants something for nothing, but the airlines are a business and most do not make a profit as it is. Imagine if they had to by thousands of multimillion dollar planes that just sat on the ramp waiting for “what ifs”.

    Bad weather is dangerous in a plane, and one of the reasons flying is insanely safer as time has gone on is they don’t fly into bad weather like they did in the past. We need to get over ourselves; we can go from CA to NY in 5 hours, non-stop. That’s fantastic. Just a bit over 50 years ago it took a couple days with stops. And you had to be wealthy to do it. 100 years ago you were in a wagon taking months.

    Life is inconvenient sometimes. We should be grateful we CAN fly and focus our grievances on the bad service issues the airlines CAN control.

  • Blackadar

    I’ve seen an airline give our plane to another flight and then try to claim a weather delay for our flight.

    CLT > TOR plane arrived and was at the gate (E5). We were actually getting ready to board when…

    CLT > NYC flight 3 gates down gets canceled due to maintenance. Two minutes later I hear that the CLT > NYC flight is going to board at E5. 30 seconds later,we’re told that the CLT > TOR flight is canceled and to go to customer service.

    When we got to customer service, they tried to claim that our flight was canceled due to weather (which was clear). Only after I objected did they decide to provide vouchers for meals and hotel rooms.

    Anyone who doesn’t think that the airlines flat-out lie about delays and canceled flights to save money on vouchers and other soft costs is fooling themselves.

  • Chasmosaur

    I once had a flight cancelled because one of the FA’s scheduled for our flight would be 5 minutes into OT when the plane landed. Union rules said they couldn’t use her. Since it was Christmas week, they were having a hard time finding a replacement.

    Ultimately, they identified an FA on an inbound flight who could fill the slot. Except THAT plane got hit by a legitimate weather delay, when our flight should have been departing, flying over, and landing in perfectly clear weather. This was when our flight was cancelled – because they couldn’t fill out the crew roster.

    We went to get a hotel and meal voucher, and we were told that the flight was cancelled because of weather delay. I told the story and wouldn’t move from the line until they gave it to us. Talking with our fellow travelers the next day, we were the only ones who had managed to finagle one out of the airline (NW).

  • gracekelley

    Can you just imagine how much it would cost to fly if they had a extra plane just sitting around “just in case” for every flight and crew to fly it just sitting around at out stations all over? We’d be paying 5000$ to go from Charlotte to Asheville north Carolina!