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.

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

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend