Maybe they should blame your next flight delay on space aliens

By | March 10th, 2014

Fred Rotgers’ recent flight from San Juan to Newark was canceled because of the weather. At least, that’s what United Airlines claims.

Rotgers doesn’t believe it.

“The weather at both the origin and destination was just fine from the time of cancellation until two days later,” he says. “United called this a pre-emptive cancellation.”

Question is, what was United pre-empting? Like many passengers, Rotgers suspects it had other reasons for canceling the flight. Maybe it was having plane trouble or maybe they failed to sell enough seats on the plane.

Here’s what he does know: When he tried to get help, United wouldn’t answer its phones.

“The airline did not rebook me to my original destination, but to an airport nearly 100 miles away,” he says. “United did not provide a return flight until five days later, necessitating a lengthy and costly stay in San Juan.”

United insists it did cancel his flight because of weather. In a lengthy email, a representative explained that severe cold had precipitated massive, system-wide cancellations.

“Our co-workers from around the system put forth their best efforts to assist customers at ORD, CLE, IAD, EWR and other hubs and stations affected by the Arctic chill and the ripple effect of days of wintry weather around the U.S.,” a representative said.

And for those of you following along at home, ORD is the city code for Chicago O’Hare, CLE is the hub United just abandoned in Cleveland because it was unprofitable; IAD is Washington and EWR is Newark.

In other words, it’s a weather delay because we said it’s a weather delay.

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Now, I’m no meteorologist and neither is Rotgers, but we know bad weather when we see it. We just weren’t seeing it.

Instead, here’s what we saw: United had built a complex network of hubs, and the winter weather was affecting the operation of the entire system. How creative. Under that definition of “weather” I can cancel my flight from Chicago to New York because the inbound aircraft from Anchorage was held up by a snowstorm.

By the way, when an airline invokes the “weather” excuse, it doesn’t have to offer passengers any compensation. No hotel rooms, no meal vouchers, no transportation.

Pretty clever, huh?

I’ve covered these Acts of God excuses time and again, and here’s what it comes down to: When an airline, or any other travel company, pulls the weather card, we have to believe it.

Even if Rotgers were a forensic meteorologist — those are the experts who verify the weather, usually for insurance companies — he’d be out of luck.

How do I know that? Because he asked. I recommended he take his case to the highest level of appeal, the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. A representative sent him a form response.

“Based on the information you have provided, it does not appear that your complaint falls under one of the Department’s rules,” it said.

In other words, United can give you whatever reason it wants for a flight delay, and as long as there’s no rule against it, the government won’t stop it.

“This will open the door to any arbitrary cancellations of flights by airlines claiming weather difficulties, when the issue is their own lack of preparedness for problems not associated with the specific cities from which the flight originates and to which it proceeds,” says Rotgers. “The government needs to address this issue quickly and effectively.”

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I agree. But it probably won’t. The DOT doesn’t have the ability to verify every weather delay. And the three remaining legacy airlines have been bending the truth for so long that even their own employees often don’t know fact from fiction.

Maybe they should just blame your next delay on space aliens. At least that would be more entertaining.

Do airlines play the "weather" card too often?

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