How to fight back against the ‘beyond our control’ excuse

It’s not our fault. You’ve probably heard that line a time or two, especially from your airline, hotel or cruise line. It’s the old “Act of God” excuse — or to put it in less theological terms, an event “beyond our control.”

Reasons matter. That’s because under the rules of most travel bookings, a company owes you nothing if these events keep it from opening or operating. Blame it on Mother Nature, and the company can get away with almost anything. But there’s a way to counter the oldest excuse in travel.

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The meaning of beyond our control

“‘Circumstances beyond our control’ are hard to define, to say the least,” says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of Travelinsurance.com.

Indeed, impossible to define, sometimes. Consider John Thompson’s recent flight from Las Vegas to Boston by way of Washington. The carrier blamed “weather or air traffic” on a brief delay of his outbound — both events it claims it has no control over.

But that’s not how Thompson remembers it. He says his flight from Las Vegas to Washington was also held up because it was overbooked, something which the airline can control.

“The delay was extended by another 20 minutes because no one was willing to take a $1,000 voucher to give up their seats for other passengers,” recalls Thompson, a project manager from Chelmsford, Mass.

In the end, he had to spend the night in Washington, which cost him $125. The airline initially refused to cover his extra costs, but after I contacted it, Thompson was reimbursed for his hotel stay.

Turns out you can fight back

Nancy Barnby, a retired high school teacher from Menlo Park, Calif., booked a room at a La Quinta hotel in Oregon two years ago to see this summer’s solar eclipse. Then the hotel was sold.

“The new owners decided not to keep any of the prior reservations,” she remembers. “But they also didn’t inform us.”

By the time she discovered the canceled reservation, hotel prices were astronomically high. The new owners claimed the sale was an event beyond their control. I begged to differ. I contacted the new hotel and it covered the cost of her new hotel reservation.

“When someone uses the ‘circumstances are beyond my control’ excuse, they are utilizing a classic negotiation technique: the abdication of authority and responsibility,” says Kwame Christian, director of the American Negotiation Institute, a consulting firm. The most important step you can take toward resolving your dispute is to persuade the company to accept the responsibility, he adds.

Can you turn the tables?

It’s also helpful to turn the tables when someone tries to feed you that line. What would happen when if you were the one with a circumstance beyond your control?

“What if you got sick or injured just prior to your trip, preventing you from traveling?” adds Sandberg. “It’s pretty clear that an airline or hotel, while likely sympathetic to their customer, would not have any financial obligation to you.”

In other words, more often than not, it probably is their fault that they couldn’t operate their flight, offer you accommodations, a berth or a car. The cop-out is a symptom of a much bigger problem: an industry that’s used to getting away with it.

How to fight the ‘circumstances’ excuse

• Get informed. Accurate and up-to-date information is your closest ally when you’re fighting a bogus excuse. I once pushed an airline to offer meal vouchers and compensation after it claimed runway construction was an event beyond its control. I gently pointed out that the construction, which had caused my flight home to be canceled, must have been announced a while back. Indeed, the event was highlighted on the airport website.

• Go positive. Rather than making demands, try telling the company how it can fix your problem. Ask for the hotel to find a way of honoring your reservation when it closes for renovations. Stay upbeat. “Tell them, ‘I really appreciate you getting me on this next flight. This is incredibly helpful,'” says Christian of the American Negotiation Institute. In the end, what matters isn’t their excuse, but that you got around it.

• Buy travel insurance. Most policies cover trip interruption and don’t distinguish between weather or a delay caused by an airline, rail operator or bus company. Delay coverage can be considerably more generous than an airline, says Sandberg of Travelinsurance.com. “Travel insurance can provide reimbursement for your additional expenses, including meals, accommodations, local transportation and phone calls,” he notes.

Do travel companies pull the “beyond our control” card too often? What, if anything, can we do about it?

7 thoughts on “How to fight back against the ‘beyond our control’ excuse

  1. 1. If they can’t say what caused the delay, they’re probably hiding something. “It was weather or air traffic.” Ground stops, Ground Delay Programs and Air Space Flow programs are all FAA directed and recorded. While weather might drive (actually normally drives), these events. The airlines will know that they occurred and there is a record of them.
    2. Both the airline and ATC systems are interrelated so yes, bad weather in NYC can cause your Chicago to Miami flight to be delayed when aircraft / crews end up in the wrong spot. Bad weather on the east coast can cause your NYC to DC flight to be delayed even if the weather is over Philly.
    3. I’m not a fan of them being able to make business decisions due to weather and blame the weather for them but the FAA allows it.
    4. A part breaking is never a circumstance beyond your control.
    5. When you buy a business, you almost always purchases its obligations too. Reservations would be one of those.

    As I’ve said before, if you want it to change, write your Congress person to change the law.

    1. “As I’ve said before, if you want it to change, write your Congress person to change the law.”

      Just include a check — er — campaign contribution — larger than the one sent by the business that wants things the other way.

    2. I’d suggest that while weather delays are not the fault of the airlines, flight crew delays are. The airlines plan sunny day crew availability based on scheduled flights. If the airline can’t supply a crew despite the flight itself experiencing no weather delays, why isn’t that the airline’s fault for not having sufficient crew, a backup plan, or any other contingency that is a natural part of doing business?

      1. Exactly. As someone with relatives in the business, it is common knowledge that airlines try to save money by scheduling too few pilots and FAs to cover reserve in most locations. Once the reserve crews are used up, the airlines have to resort to trying to draft crews. Usually they pay extra for this, but often not enough to tempt a pilot or FA to give up vacation time. And you can’t accept draft if you haven’t had the required amount of sleep, or have been drinking, based on FAA and contract minimums. Since no one is required to accept draft, and in many cases, the pilots or FAs are too far from the airport in question to be able to help, anyway, flights get cancelled. The market works both ways: if airlines chose to pay more for draft flights, and/or if they put more crews on reserve (paid duty), or if they increased the minimum hour guarantee each month (which would require them to pay crews more each month), there would be fewer flights cancelled for lack of crews.

  2. “By the time she discovered the canceled reservation, hotel prices were
    astronomically high. The new owners claimed the sale was an event beyond
    their control. I begged to differ. I contacted the new hotel and it
    covered the cost of her new hotel reservation.”

    The event was not beyond their control – they could have kept all the remaining reservations. THEY canceled the existing reservations, not Nancy. Glad you got around them because it seems to me greed was behind the cancellations – they knew they could get more money for the room and hid behind the purchase as an excuse.

  3. We had a 7-hour delay on the last leg of our flight from Madrid to Dallas to Tucson several years ago. There was a storm in Dallas so AA finally flew to Houston to refuel. When we got back to Dallas, there was no gate for the pilots who were to fly us to Tucson. By the time the pilots were able to find a gate and get to our plane, our flight attendants were getting off duty. When we finally got to board, I politely asked the flight attendant if, due to the 7-hour delay, they could provide us in “cattle class” this a drink or some kind of food. Her response was “This was a weather-related delay. You will have to talk to Mother Nature about it”. You can bet I got her name and reported her to AA. That is not good customer service!

    1. Note that FAs usually get ZERO pay until the door closes. So any time planes are waiting at the gate, or experiencing delayed boarding, those FAs — who don’t make a lot/hour anyway — are working for free. A little understanding cuts both ways.

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