A flight delay ends with a missed business meeting — who is responsible?

What kind of compensation can you expect from an airline when a flight delay makes you miss an important event? What if missing that event causes you to lose a customer or hurts you in your job? Do you get anything extra?

When this happened to Adam Williams, he learned that what you get is basically zilch. His case is an important reminder that domestic airlines are not required to compensate you if your flight is delayed or canceled.

A six-hour flight delay

Williams had a morning meeting in Vermont and then was scheduled on a United Airlines flight leaving Burlington at 11:10 a.m. That should have allowed him plenty of time to make it to a 7 p.m. dinner meeting in Chicago.

Instead, Williams says equipment problems delayed his flight more than six hours. “The gate agent was super nice and rebooked me, but I missed a meeting in Chicago that had been scheduled late to accommodate my travel. As a result of my absence, the client is displeased and a troubled account is now more troubled. Neither the customer nor my employer is interested in excuses!”

It’s tough to have a customer and an employer displeased with you. It’s worse when it’s because of something you could not control.

Does United owe Williams for this flight delay?

The answer is no. In the U.S., airlines have it written into their contracts of carriage that they are not responsible for on-time arrivals. United’s Rule 24 covers flight delays, cancellations, and aircraft changes.

Schedules are Subject To Change Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time.

United isn’t the only airline that has such a policy. To the best of my knowledge, every domestic air carrier uses similar language. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation makes it clear on its website that, “Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.”

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Advice from the Department of Transportation

Here is what the DOT says about getting to a special event:

If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, you might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays aren’t unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is your most important consideration.

However, the DOT doesn’t tell you how much of a buffer to allow. And, in his defense, Williams thought he had used “defensive planning.” But the unpleasant reality is that the agency’s policy on delays is that stuff happens and we have to deal with it.

Williams asked United for compensation. All he got was a $75 voucher. Unfortunately, given the contract of carriage and the DOT rules, our advocates were unable to help and we must file this as a Case Dismissed.

Should domestic airlines be required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled?

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Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

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