Even an extremely delayed flight does not always result in compensation

The storm clouds on the horizon signaled not just another delayed flight. They also should have served as a warning to Eleanor Jean Schmidt that a prolonged, unpleasant, and ultimately fruitless attempt to seek compensation for the delays lay ahead.

Schmidt was scheduled to fly from Philadelphia to Brussels on American Airlines. American’s treatment of Schmidt and her fellow passengers was, as Schmidt describes it, “horrid.”

Unfortunately, American refuses to offer Schmidt or the other passengers any compensation because there are no federal laws requiring airlines to do so for weather-related delays, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

We’ve seen a number of air passengers unsuccessfully seeking compensation for horrible air travel experiences resulting from weather-related problems. Since airlines have no control over weather-related issues, they benefit when they can attribute delays and cancellations to inclement weather as opposed to mechanical delays, for which they are legally required to compensate passengers. And unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do for passengers when their bad flight experiences result from weather-related delays or cancellations. Schmidt is no exception.

Her American Airlines horror story began two months before the scheduled due date, when her flight was rerouted. Schmidt was originally scheduled to return directly from Brussels to Philadelphia on American Airlines.

Then she learned that because American was no longer flying directly into Brussels, she would have to fly from Brussels to London’s Heathrow Airport and then back to Philadelphia – and it would cost her an additional $118 in airport taxes. American agreed to refund Schmidt the airport taxes, but then wanted her to pay $130 for a new ticket.

Then she was billed $166 for the new ticket – and refunded only $171. She had been forced to pay an additional $125 out of her own pocket because of an administrative decision by American Airlines, for which she was not responsible.

American rerouted me, thus prolonging my trip home by multiple hours and waiting,” she says. “Why should I pay for this increased hassle? And why this constant back and forth?”

Good question — and Strike One for American Airlines’ customer service. And little did Schmidt know that the problems with her flight were just beginning.

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On the day her flight was scheduled to depart, it was delayed because of bad weather. Then there was an announcement that the plane needed additional fuel, followed later by an announcement that there was also a mechanical problem.

Schmidt and her fellow passengers had waited on board the flight for four hours for takeoff. They were permitted to deplane and return to the terminal, where they waited for another three hours before American Airlines announced at 2 a.m. that the flight was canceled.

While on board the plane, the passengers were served two glasses of water and one small packet of cookies. After deplaning, they were provided with one can of soda and $13 in meal vouchers, but no restaurants in the airport were open. They were provided with no meals or other food or drinks during seven hours of delay.

Strike Two.

American was able to accommodate all the passengers on a flight the next day, but provided them with no assistance in finding hotel rooms for the night. They were told to sleep in the airport. Schmidt took a cab back to her hotel and returned to the airport the next day, at which time the flight was able to take off for Philadelphia.

Schmidt complained to American Airlines about her experience, requesting compensation for the delays, lack of food and taxi fares. (Executive contact information for American Airlines appears on our website.) An agent of American replied:

I can assure you that our official records indicate that the cancellation of Flight 750 was caused by weather conditions. I understand you were informed of a maintenance issue being taken [care] of while you were waiting. When aircraft are delayed we may take that time to repair small items, not essential to the safety of the flight, which have been waiting for repair. … However, we consider what set the off-schedule event in motion and advise our customers accordingly.

When your flight is canceled due to weather, safety is always the number one priority. Our reports indicate storms were affecting the northeastern U.S. that evening which caused issues with many flights. When weather is affecting an area, additional fuel may be required to fly around storms in an effort to provide a smooth, and safe, ride for our passengers.

We agree that any delay of this nature would clearly have been more tolerable if we had been able to serve meals onboard. Since we did not know how long the flight delay would last, we do not typically have a full meal service for fear of not being ready to proceed immediately at whatever time the weather clears. In that situation, our takeoff could be further delayed while readying the cabin and collecting trash items from everyone onboard.

To which Schmidt responded:

Do you honestly believe what you wrote?

We were IN the airport for THREE hours before the flight was canceled. At 11 PM there was certainly some food source — cookies, crackers — ANYTHING to stave off our EXTREME hunger that could have been organized. All we received during this period was ONE can of soda.

The poor young children on this flight — including one baby — had to suffer along with the grownups. I repeat, your treatment was a SIN! — an insult and inhumane.

You will NEVER EVER see me again on one of your flights!

(Words in all caps in the above quotation appear as per the original text.)

Frustrated by her experience, Schmidt then contacted our advocates for assistance. But we can’t help.

American Airlines’ International General Rules Tariff, which applies to Schmidt’s flight, indicates that

AA may, in the event of a force majeure event, without notice, cancel, terminate,
divert, postpone, or delay any flight or the right of carriage and determine if any departure or landing should be made. …

As used in this rule “force majeure event” means:

Any condition beyond AA’s control (including, but without limitation, meteorological conditions, acts of God, … actual, threatened or reported or because of any delay, demand, circumstances or requirement due, directly or indirectly, to such condition; …
Any government regulation, demand, or requirement; or
Any shortage of labor, fuel, or facilities of AA or others; or
Any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated, or predicted by AA. …
Lodging passenger will be provided one night’s lodging, or a maximum allowance for one night’s lodging as established by each location, when an AA flight on which the passenger is being transported is diverted to an unscheduled point and the delay at such point is expected to exceed six hours during the period 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. …

Extraordinary circumstances: AA will provide such amenities as are necessary to maintain the safety and/or welfare of certain passengers such as invalids, unaccompanied children, the elderly or others to whom such amenities will be furnished consistent with special needs and/or circumstances.

It could be argued that these provisions indicate that American should have provided Schmidt and her fellow passengers a hotel room or allowance. And Schmidt, who is 80, might have qualified for additional amenities.

And although American’s agent indicated that the airline typically doesn’t serve meals during long delays, this is one instance when adhering to the letter of legal requirements and failing to give passengers delayed by seven hours anything more than a few drinks and cookies constitutes a serious customer service error. Strike Three, and, as Schmidt noted, the airline is out because she has no intention of flying on American Airlines again.

But as we’ve frequently noted, using all caps in text is considered the equivalent of shouting. That’s a no-no when requesting help or filing a complaint, as is issuing any type of threat. While Schmidt’s frustration with American’s lack of assistance is understandable, shouting and declaring that she would never fly on American Airlines again was not likely to move the airline to offer her any compensation for her experience. And it didn’t.

American Airlines struck out with its service to Schmidt, but there’s nothing we can do for her. Thus her story is a Case Dismissed.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • Bill___A

    What a bunch of whining. Worried about the baby? The parents would have baby food to feed the baby. This is just whining for the sake of whining. Bring food with you on the plane, including an energy bar or two. Agreed that AA could have done better but we all know that airlines aren’t perfect and have to learn to take care of things ourselves.

  • Jeff W.

    American’s handling of this delay certainly could have been better.

    “You will NEVER EVER see me again on one of your flights!”. This means AA has no incentive to help you. Why make someone happy if you have no intention to purchase from the airline again.

    “Unfortunately, American refuses to offer Schmidt or the other passengers any compensation…”. You don’t know that. It is certainly possible that AA did reimburse other passengers if their complaints were reasonable and asked in a more friendly nature.

  • Lindabator

    correct – and she also stated they SHOULD have given them hotel rooms (COULD have is the best they can do) – as the are NOT required to do so, and although they CAN do so in special cases, whiners do not fall into the special circumstances category. IF she had been nicer, asked a gate agent if it was possible to get a meal voucher, etc – may have done so. I always tell my clients just be nice to the gate agents, do not DEMAND what you are not entitled to, and they usually find something to make it a bit easier on you

  • Hanope

    Weather happens. This was some years ago, but my family was flying out of the east coast when it was hit by a big snow storm. We were already at the airport, calls earlier in the day told us to come, since our flight would go out after the storm – but turned out the storm lasted longer than expected. we were stuck with no way to get back home in the storm after the flight was cancelled. We were just happy that the agents got us a new flight the following day. Yes, we were annoyed to be on our own for a hotel, but we made our own arrangements (yay for hotel shuttle). the next day, our flight got delayed 6 hours due to snow clean up. We weren’t offered meal vouchers and I didn’t think to ask back then (I would now), so again, we handled it ourselves. The delay out caused us to miss another rescheduled flight, so we had another delay for a new connection., We eventually got to our desitnation about 36 hours later than expected. At least we got there. Oh, and of course, our luggage didn’t show up until another day later. At least we were just staying with family with a washing machine so we could wash our 2 day-old clothes.

  • greg watson

    Be Cool, Calm, & maybe Collect………………….Vinegar & Honey

  • Dutchess

    ” American Airlines struck out with its service to Schmidt, but there’s nothing we can do for her. Thus her story is a Case Dismissed.”

    Wait, American did exactly what it was supposed to do. Schmidt was just demanding and unreasonable. Three whole hours in the airport….oh the HUMANITY!

    There’s lots of things the airlines say that aren’t in their control such as maintenance, labor disagreements etc that are within their control but weather is certainly not one of those things.

    Last year my flight to London was diverted to Chicago when a passenger got drunk and rowdy on the place. We were over Canada and had to divert 90 minutes south to land in ORD where we were delayed an additional 3 hours. It was also late at night and nothing but a convenience store was open. This wasn’t United’s fault. I didn’t demand food and drink because this was out of their control. I don’t think AA will miss Schmidt at all.

  • Annie M

    She might have been able to be reimbursed for a hotel for a night if she bought travel insurance. I’ve used it myself twice with flights canceled due to weather.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Why wouldn’t the EU261 duty of care (if not compensation) apply here? It was a flight from an EU country, so certainly EU261 eligible. Compensation probably doesn’t apply, given that it was weather, but the duty of care (food, accommodation, communication) applies regardless of the cause for the delay or cancellation.

  • Carol Molloy

    I agree. Nothing produces help like a sympathetic and kind approach to what is probably a beleaguered employee. Even if there is little they can do, they’ll be more likely to give you what help is available, or agree to some accommodation.

    Many years ago, I had to sleep on the floor in a business suit when ATA kept delaying my flight out of Indianapolis. A 6:00 pm flight finally left, twelve hours later. Mechanical problems. No hotel, no meal vouchers, warnings not to leave the gate area, because they didn’t know what the departure time was going to be. No gate agent continuously at the counter. When we finally were able to board, exhausted, stiff, and hungry ( no meals on the plane, btw). I was handed a pillow covered with hair, which I declined. Worst of all, I had to change and go into the office as soon as I got back.

    I vowed never to fly them again, and didn’t. Of course, they didn’t survive independently.

    Lessons learned from that: Always have change in the local currency for raiding the vending machine. Keep an inflatable pillow in the briefcase. Keep a sense of humor. It may be the only thing that will help you survive..:)

  • michael anthony

    “If she had been nicer….”

    I understand why most posters have no sympathy for this pax, but it was your mention about being nice, that made me pause. Most of us have experienced one of these type if events if we’ve traveled for years. Or, it’s happened several times. With each event, the amount of frustration, anger, and entitlement, is directly related to how the carrier and the staff treat you. I’ve had both extremes, and those carriers that treat you with disdain, probably have many of these kinds of complaints.

    Thus in this case, her anger may be related to the treatment of the carrier. Perhaps she was very nice, only to be ignored, when asking a question, etc.

    So, I can see both sides. I agree, she won’t see anything with this kind of letter. But it does make me pause, since as ive said, I’ve experienced great to awful service during a major delay. Sometimes you get what you give.

  • Blamona

    I’d rather be safe than sorry, don’t care how long it takes. However, if weather stopped and planes were taking off during the mechanical hours then maybe comp. if weather continued then no comp.

  • Jeff W.

    It does not as they were flying on American. If flying to an EU country from outside of the EU, 261 only applies to countries based in the EU.

  • BubbaJoe123

    They were flying from London (which is definitely in the EU, at least at the moment) to Philadelphia. Unless I’m reading the article wrong?

  • RightNow9435

    While the issue of the delay and American’s poor response is the main gist of the article, there should still be a way for her to recover the $125 American improperly took from her due to American’s changing the flights(the OP had not requested a change in her flights–American forced those changes on her, so she should not have to pay anything extra).

  • jsn55

    AA’s behaviour was shameful … but what else is new? When you’re going on a long flight, make preparations for this kind of baloney, because it happens far too often. Passengers who think that an airline will care for them are naive … unless you have status with the loyalty plan, you are treated like refuse. Bring food and drink, a change of clothing, personal care items, books, power cords for your devices … everything you might need for a day (or two or three) so you suffer a major inconvenience but not a disaster.

  • jsn55

    Good point, Annie – I book all air on a Chase Sapphire with travel insurance as a perk. I don’t expect much from an airline and am always pleased if things go anywhere near normally. I also try mightily to avoid anywhere it snows in the winter.

  • Lindabator

    that is true – but when it is a weather issue, they have no control over it, and you are not actually entitled to anything — but I have seen being nice get you something anyway – so I always recommend it. I’ve also seen a cranky gate agent brighten up when I’ve been nice to them, even after they’ve snapped at me. Sometimes they have been growled at so much, they come to expect it, and when YOU are nice, changes their attitude as well

  • Lindabator

    does not cover weather – that is considered an act of God

  • Lindabator

    flying on American – and given it was due to weather does not apply

  • Lindabator

    this was the American flight portion which was domestic to domestic segment

  • BubbaJoe123

    What’s confusing is this section: “Then she learned that because American was no longer flying directly into Brussels, she would have to fly from Brussels to London’s Heathrow Airport and then back to Philadelphia – and it would cost her an additional $118 in airport taxes”

    I guess that was an entirely separate issue? Wasn’t clear from the story.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The American issue is valid, but if this were a flight where EU261 applies (on an EU carrier, or on a flight from the EU on any carrier), then weather might get the carrier out of paying compensation, but it’s no exemption for duty of care (housing, food, communications).

  • Lindabator

    true – but I am surprised they would charge her, as usually they eat those fees when they change routing. perhaps she chose a different option then they offered, and then may not have fallen into coverage if within the same time frame, as you chose to change from what was offered which was comparable

  • BubbaJoe123

    Sounds like it might have been the additional taxes associated with the routing (UK Air Passenger Duty), although that wouldn’t apply (or at least shouldn’t) if she was just in transit…

    That section made me think that the disruption was on her flight back, but I guess it wasn’t.

  • Shirley G

    Shame on you!

  • Shirley G

    File a DOT complaint.

  • Shirley G

    Here, here!

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