Are airlines bending the truth about weather delays?

snow stormA few minutes after Michele Loftin’s recent commuter flight from Sacramento to San Francisco pushed back from the gate, it made an abrupt U-turn and returned to the terminal. A United Airlines crew member told passengers that the aircraft’s de-icer test had failed, and the airline eventually canceled the flight.

Loftin, a retired social worker from Roseville, Calif., wouldn’t normally care about broken de-icers. But when she contacted the airline and asked it to cover her expenses for the 24-hour delay leading up to the cancellation, a company representative told her that she was on her own. “They informed me that our flight was canceled due to air traffic control issues, not mechanical issues,” she says.

The reasons for an airline delay matter. United’s contract of carriage – the legal agreement between passengers and the airline – provides compensation for mechanical delays. It states that if a cancellation is caused by the airline, it will provide a hotel room and pay for meals and transportation to and from the hotel. By changing the reason for the cancellation to air traffic, United was letting itself off the hook.

“It’s disturbing to think that the crew on the plane would lie to the passengers,” says Loftin. “But it’s even more troubling if airlines aren’t correctly reporting mechanical issues.”

The major U.S. airlines are required to report the causes of their flight delays to the Department of Transportation every month. When they do, they have to identify one of five reasons, which include delays caused by factors under the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems; aviation system delays; late-arriving aircraft; extreme weather; and security. The Federal Aviation Administration reviews air traffic control delays to ensure that they’re being filed correctly, but the DOT does not routinely audit carrier cause-of-delay reports.

“If we have reason to believe that a carrier’s reports are inaccurate, we will investigate, and false filings may be subject to civil penalties and possibly serious criminal penalties,” says Bill Mosley, a DOT spokesman. “We would look into a situation in which a consumer may have been harmed by being given false information by an airline about the cause of a delay.”

Mosley says it’s possible that United told Loftin the truth both times – in other words, that the de-icer didn’t work and that it couldn’t operate the flight because of air traffic issues. Often, he says, a flight is initially delayed for mechanical reasons. Even if the problem is fixed, the carrier can’t take off because of air traffic control restrictions and is forced to cancel.

But when Loftin tried to find answers, United seemed unwilling to offer more than a form response. It initially responded with an e-mail apologizing for “a higher volume of e-mail than normal” but reassuring her that “United trusts the discretion of our flight crews in the reports made.” When she pressed for details about her flight, United sent her another form letter with her flight information listing “flow control,” which relates to air traffic, as the first cause of delay. There appeared to be no mention of a broken de-icer in the final report.

United may take its crew members at their word, but passengers are less trusting. They suspect that, given the choice between reporting a reason for delay that could cost their employer tens of thousands of dollars and one that would let it off the hook, many employees would probably choose the latter – especially if the government will let them get away with it.

Some say they have proof that the numbers are being fudged. Last summer, Mike Smith, an extreme-weather expert based in Wichita, documented one such suspicious flight delay on his blog. United blamed bad weather for a delay in his flight from Chicago to Wichita, but Smith checked the weather and found nothing that would affect a flight.

Eventually, the pilot on his flight from Chicago admitted that the real reason for the holdup was a “late arrival” from Calgary, Canada, where the flight had originated.

Smith consulted United’s contract of carriage and noticed another disclaimer that troubled him as a meteorologist: a clause saying that United wasn’t liable for any misstatements regarding the weather. In other words, he concluded, the airline “can – and does – tell untruths to passengers and then disclaims liability,” he noted. “Since the vast majority of their passengers aren’t meteorologists, they get away with it.”

Janice Hough, a travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif., believes that fixing this problem isn’t as simple as ordering an airline to “tell the truth” and threatening it with a fine if it doesn’t. Running an airline is complicated, and the reasons for a delay may not neatly fit one of the DOT’s five categories.

Hough remembers a recent flight from Newark to San Francisco that was delayed an hour because of weather, according to the airline. But her own investigation suggested a different reason. She suspects that her airline – United, again – swapped out the aircraft to minimize another delay.

“No one claims that scheduling aircraft is easy,” she says. “In San Francisco, a lot of so-called weather delays are actually a combination of weather and limited takeoff and landing slots. Air traffic control might limit an airline’s total flights in or out, and the airline decides which of its flights to prioritize and which to delay.”

United is hardly the only airline whose passengers question the reasons for its delays. To figure out what’s happening here, I paid a visit to United’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, toured its operations center – a control room that could easily pass for a NASA mission control center – and met with Jim DeYoung, the facility’s managing director.

I watched him track a series of weather delays affecting Newark, coincidentally, and came away with the impression that the reasons for a delay may not always be crystal-clear, even to someone sitting in United’s ops center. Certainly, a crew member may believe that there’s one reason for a holdup, while someone scheduling the aircraft back in Chicago may blame something else.

The fix isn’t to force an airline such as United to choose a delay category that’s more advantageous to passengers, although the DOT occasionally fines an airline for listing the wrong reasons for a flight delay. The most recent penalty was issued in 2007, when the government fined regional carrier Comair $75,000 for listing weather as the cause of numerous flight delays, when, in fact, a computer meltdown was primarily to blame.

A better solution would be to streamline the airlines’ contracts of carriage so that they clearly define a carrier’s responsibility during a delay. A standard industry contract did exist before the airlines were deregulated more than three decades ago. If the airlines could agree on such a contract, it should provide for a clear and timely disclosure of the reason for a delay, and air carriers should voluntarily tell passengers what compensation, if any, they’re entitled to.

The DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection discussed the feasibility of a model plain-English contract last year. Its recommendations on this issue, which are currently being considered by the government, might help clear up the delay confusion once and for all.

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