Are airlines bending the truth about weather delays?

Photo of author

By Christopher Elliott

A 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 told me that air traffic control issues, not mechanical problems, caused the cancellation of our flight,” 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 the airline causes a cancellation, it will provide a hotel room and cover the costs of 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.

Since this article first appeared in 2013, there have been several meaningful initiatives to hold airlines accountable for delays caused by weather. The federal government recently proposed adopting new rules similar to Europe’s EC 261, requiring airlines to take care of passengers during most delays. Still, it’s unlikely that would extend to weather delays.

Concerns over accurate reporting

“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. 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 are being filed correctly, but the DOT does not routinely audit carrier reports on the causes of delays.

Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection covers consumers and their travel dreams, backed by Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company’s financial strength and security. Choose travel insurance designed specifically to your trip and travelers, plus the fastest claims payments in the travel insurance industry. Get more information at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.

“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.”

A doubtful cause of delays

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. He says that often, a flight is initially delayed for mechanical reasons. Even if the problem is fixed, the carrier cannot take off because of air traffic control restrictions and must cancel the flight. (Related: This is how to travel during El Nino.)

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.

Questionable flight delay explanations

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. 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. This was from where the flight had originated.

Smith consulted United’s contract of carriage. He noticed another disclaimer that troubled him as a meteorologist. It was 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 is a travel advisor based in Los Altos, Calif. She 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. Operating an airline is complicated. The reasons for a delay may not neatly fit one of the DOT’s five categories.

Scheduling complexities

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. 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. I met with Jim DeYoung, the facility’s managing director.

Seeking clarity in delay explanations

I watched him track a series of weather delays affecting Newark. He 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. 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. The DOT occasionally fines an airline for listing the wrong reasons for a flight delay. The most recent penalty was issued in 2007. The government fined regional carrier Comair $75,000 for listing weather as the cause of numerous flight delays. A computer meltdown was primarily to blame. (Related: What’s the real reason for my flight delay.)

A better solution would be to streamline the airlines’ contracts of carriage. This will ensure that they clearly define a carrier’s responsibility during a delay. Before the airlines were deregulated more than three decades ago, there was a standard industry contract. If the airlines could reach an agreement on such a contract, it should ensure a clear and timely disclosure of the reason for a delay. Air carriers should voluntarily inform passengers of their entitled compensation, if any. (Here’s what to do if your flight has been canceled or delayed.)

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.

Do you believe airlines routinely bend the truth about weather delays in order to avoid paying compensation to their passengers?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
Photo of author

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

Related Posts