I see a clear blue sky, so how can my flight’s cancellation be “weather related”?

By | February 23rd, 2017

Catherine Walker-Jacks sat waiting for takeoff. It was her third attempt to fly from Montrose, Colo., to Boston via Chicago on American Airlines. But the flight was canceled — and for the third consecutive day, Walker-Jacks wondered if she’d ever make it out of the airport. She was told that the flight was canceled because of “inclement weather” — yet the sky was clear and blue.

Walker-Jacks, a college student in her twenties, didn’t understand the reasons for her flights’ delays and cancellations over a three-day period. She contacted our advocates, asking for compensation for her airfare. We can’t help her get it, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Her story begins at the Montrose airport, where Walker-Jacks boarded an American Airlines flight to Boston via Chicago, paid for by her parents. This flight was delayed due to a “mechanical problem.” According to crew members, a bird had struck the plane en route to Montrose. The plane had to be attended to by a mechanic before boarding and takeoff could occur.

During the boarding process, precipitation began to affect visibility, causing a tarmac delay and eventually, cancellation. The passengers, including Walker-Jacks, were forced to deplane and were rebooked on flights scheduled for the next day. Walker-Jacks had to pay for a hotel room for the night.

The following day, American Airlines rebooked Walker-Jacks on the first available flight. According to Walker-Jacks, “it was a clear sunny day and all United and Delta flights left smoothly.”

Walker-Jacks’ rebooked flight boarded 90 minutes late, as did other later-scheduled American Airlines flights. While her plane was on the tarmac, she observed the sole deicing truck at the Montrose airport servicing all the other aircraft. But it never deiced her own plane. More than an hour later, the pilot announced that this flight would be delayed and no passengers aboard would be able to make their connecting flights. Some passengers asked to deplane, which required a gate agent to be summoned and luggage to be removed from the cargo hold.

Related story:   When Southwest Airlines follows its contract of carriage but a traveler does not, we won't get involved

Twenty minutes later, the pilot announced that the flight had sat for so long that fuel was running out. The aircraft still had not been deiced. And twenty-five minutes after that, the pilot announced that his work time had run out, and the passengers were asked to deplane. Walker-Jacks claims that every other American Airlines, Delta, and United flight, including flights scheduled for takeoff after hers, had departed.

Yet again, her flight was canceled.

An American supervisor based in Dallas attempted to rebook Walker-Jacks on a United flight that would go to Chicago and Boston via Miami, arriving the next day. Unfortunately for Walker-Jacks, American did not release her ticket in time for her to make the United flight and booked her instead on a 7 a.m. flight the following morning. Although American Airlines’ agent acknowledged that the issue this time was not a weather issue, it offered hotel and meal vouchers. But the Montrose airport agents did not know how to issue them and Walker-Jacks did not receive them. Hours later, Walker-Jacks found herself paying for dinner and another night at a hotel.

Walker-Jacks was told to check American Airlines’ website and call for flight updates. But the 7 a.m. flight on which she was booked was an “extra section flight” that would not appear on the website. (An “extra section flight” is an unpublished flight that is intended for transportation of passengers who cannot be accommodated on regularly scheduled flights.) But the “extra section flight” was canceled as well. Walker-Jacks was rebooked on a regularly scheduled flight leaving the next afternoon.

The next day, Walker-Jacks returned to the airport at 8 a.m. The “extra section flight” was again scheduled for takeoff, now at 9 a.m. The weather was clear without precipitation. Walker-Jacks observed the flight crew begin to deice her airplane, only to abandon it while all other aircraft were serviced and departed. The passengers were finally allowed to board just before noon and the plane ultimately took off at about 12:30 p.m., three and a half hours late. But Walker-Jacks’ problems still weren’t over.

Related story:   Did United offer me compensation for a rough night in the ballroom?

When her flight landed in Chicago, her connecting flight to Boston had been canceled again because of weather. And again, Walker-Jacks paid for meals and a hotel room. She finally arrived in Boston the next day, after 72 hours of travel and $500 spent on out-of-pocket expenses.

Walker-Jacks claims that she received “virtually no help nor reliable information” from American Airlines, which denied her request for reimbursement of her expenses, claiming that her flight delays and cancellations were weather-related:

Bad weather is not something we can overcome and the direct impact on our flight schedules is unavoidable. Accordingly, it is not our policy to reimburse our customers’ out-of-pocket expenses, make up for lost time, or offer compensation when we don’t operate our flights as planned. I am sorry.

At this point, she asked our advocates for assistance. (Executive contact information for American Airlines is available on our website.)

American Airlines’ conditions of carriage provide that in the event flights are delayed, canceled or diverted,

American Airlines will provide customers at the airport and onboard an affected aircraft with timely and frequent updates regarding known delays, cancellations and diversions and will strive to provide the best available information concerning the duration of delays and to the extent available, the flight’s anticipated departure time.

We are not responsible for any special, incidental or consequential damages if we do not meet this commitment.

When cancellations and major delays are experienced, you will be rerouted on our next flight with available seats. If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within our control and we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.

In extreme circumstances, it is possible that a flight will cancel while on the ground in the city to which it was diverted. When this happens you will be rerouted on the next American flight with available seats, or in some circumstances on another airline or some other alternative means of transportation. If we are unable to reroute you, reasonable overnight accommodations will be provided by American, subject to availability.

Even when the sky appears to be clear at a point of departure, inclement weather-related delays and cancellations can cause further delays and cancellations at airports several thousand miles away. This appears to be what happened to Walker-Jacks’ flights.

Related story:   A dream trip ends early when her London flight is canceled

In Walker-Jacks’ case, each time her flight was canceled, American did rebook her on new flights. But unfortunately, FlightStats, a website that tracks historical conditions for airline flights, indicates that every airline was affected by inclement weather, both for arrivals and departures, for the three days of Walker-Jacks’ delays. It supports American’s claims that the delays were weather-related and outside of American’s control. Thus, American’s denial of compensation for those days is consistent with its conditions of carriage — even for the second day’s delay, which American’s agents agreed was the fault of the airline.

We wish we could have given Walker-Jacks better news after such a travel nightmare. Unfortunately, we have to pass on her case.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.