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.