What to do about the ‘circumstances beyond our control’ excuse

The excuse had a familiar ring to it.

Craig Zimmett’s daughter, Alissa, was supposed to fly from Miami to Gainesville, Fla., but she didn’t. Instead, her commuter flight took an unexpected detour to Jacksonville, Fla., after pilots were erroneously notified that some airport communication systems in Gainesville had stopped working. The airline said these circumstances were beyond its control.

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In travel, those three words — “beyond our control” — are being thrown around with greater frequency than ever. The reason they’re so popular? They let a travel company off the hook, often without any meaningful obligation to the customer. And they usually work, too, although there are ways to make sure they don’t with you.

Zimmett, a lawyer from Miami, says American used the excuse to terminate Alissa’s flight in Jacksonville at midnight, leaving her with no way to get to the University of Florida, where she’s a student, in time for classes the next day. He asked the airline to refund her return fare; after all, it didn’t transport her to Gainesville, as promised.

“I sent two e-mails to American but received no response,” he says. “Customer service is apparently not in their company’s handbook.”

Or maybe it is. American, which is not exactly known for its speedy refunds, eventually paid back his daughter’s $144, but only after after I contacted the airline asking about the case, and after Zimmett threatened to take the company to small-claims court.

Here’s the fascinating thing: American’s ‘conditions of carriage’ — the legal agreement between Zimmett’s daughter and the airline — says it may cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight “without liability,” except issuing a refund. All it has to do is claim what’s called a “force majeure” event, which is airline-speak for something beyond its control, and American can land anywhere it wants to. It doesn’t even have to prove there was an event. It just has to say one occurred.

But “beyond our control” is a travel favorite, and the “force majeure” clause is an industry standard. Hotels and car rental companies use it for everything from bad weather to late vendor deliveries. Tour operators invoke the “circumstances” excuse to deny refunds. Airlines play the “circumstances” card to cover delayed staff and strikes and, of course, everyone loves to blame the TSA.

It’s one of the most glaring double standards in the industry, because travelers aren’t allowed to use it in kind. Can’t make a flight because Mom is sick? Too bad, you still have to pay a change fee. Need to reschedule your hotel visit because your daughter is playing in a soccer tournament? Sorry, you’re still on the hook for the night.

More often than not, “beyond our control” is a cop-out for companies who don’t want to take responsibility for their products or services, says security expert Thomas Boyce, who runs the Center for Behavioral Safety, a safety consulting firm in San Carlos, Calif.

“For example, in the recent [Indonesia AirAsia] airline crash, it could be argued that weather contributed to the disaster,” he says. “One could argue infinite regression, but if you chase back far enough, you can usually find a point at which a decision could have been made that would have prevented an incident.”

He wonders, “Are there really any circumstances beyond our control?”

In other industries, the “circumstances” excuse is used sparingly, if at all. Why? It’s bad for business.

“It’s only appropriate when all of the circumstances are outside of the entire organization,” says Matthew Storm, a director at NICE Systems, which develops customer-service software. “If the issue is between departments, sites or employees, then this statement is just an ill-fated step toward empathy.”

At least one court agrees that the excuse is a cop-out, and it’s an influential one. A British court of appeal recently ruled against discount carrier Jet2, which tried to invoke an exception to a European consumer protection law for airline passengers. Under the law, called EU 261, an airline isn’t liable for compensating passengers when “extraordinary circumstances” prevent it from operating a flight.

Ronald Huzar, a passenger flying from Malaga, Spain, to Manchester, England, was on a flight delayed by 27 hours. He had filed for 400 euro in compensation. Jet2 refused, citing “extraordinary circumstances” because of mechanical problems. The high court sided with Huzar last year.

The court’s actions have opened a floodgate of claims from consumers. “Thousands of cases from up to six years ago and worth hundreds of millions of euros are validated thanks to this ruling,” says Eve Buechner, the chief executive of Refund.me, which helps process EU 261 claims. (Disclosure: Refund.me is also a sponsor of my consumer advocacy Web site.)

Travelers don’t have to take their complaints to court for a company to drop its “circumstances” excuse, say people who work behind the counter. Often, all you have to do is ask for a more detailed explanation. Why is the flight canceled? Why is the hotel closed? Why are there no rental cars available?

Employees are often powerless against the simple strategy of asking “Why?,” a trick you probably discovered when you were 3. For the toughest cases, you may need to study the contract, such as your rental agreement or the terms of your reservation, for a remedy.

The bottom line: The “circumstances” excuse is overused — and you don’t have to settle for it.

Is the "circumstances beyond our control" excuse overused?

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24 thoughts on “What to do about the ‘circumstances beyond our control’ excuse

  1. “refused, citing “extraordinary circumstances” because of mechanical problems. The high court sided with Huzar last year.”

    I have not lived in Europe for over 10- years but mechanical problems are sure as heck not “out of their control”.

    i have a had a few “weather delays” i will buy that because it’s ALL the weather between point A and B (even though my supervisor did not and gave me a write up for reporting back late……) but if someone openly said “mechanical problems” i would want payment.

    1. The line between a weather and a mechanical has been blurred so many times, I’ve lost count. I half expect airlines to write new laws that would allow them to cancel without having to bother with an excuse. Don’t worry, Congress will pass them.

      1. I agree with the very blurry difference between weather and a host of other circumstances. I was once on a flight that was put in a holding pattern due to bad weather (so bad the airport was closed.) We eventually had to land to refuel. All weather related to this point. On the ground we were hit by another plane and ended up on buses to our destination airport. I wrote requesting reimbursement of extra costs associated with the delay and was sent a check. My colleague on the same flight received a letter saying no refunds etc for weather delays. Same plane, same experience and different outcomes.

        1. FQ, I think you’ve described the importance of Chris’ advocacy perfectly. Lots of people are due apologies, money, vouchers, extra loyalty points or whatever when the airline misbehaves, but few actually receive anything at all. An eternal optimist, I hope that eventually travel companies will straighten out if we keep up the pressure to do the right thing.

          1. Getting something you were NOT due has more to do with a tone – the weather here was the issue, but perhaps FQTVLR writes a better letter than his colleague did (I always volunteer to do the letter writing, having been on the receiving end I know what works better than some)

  2. Remember that under EU261, even where “extraordinary circumstances” apply, airlines have a “duty of care” (useful words to use in claiming compensation) that goes beyond US law. The rule applies to any EU or Swiss-based airline and any airline, regardless of nationality, that departs from an EU or Swiss airport. The airline has to provide accommodation, meals, refreshment and transport from the airport to the accommodation. If it doesn’t, the passenger can claim later (with receipts to show actual expenses).

    1. EU 261 is such an important law and too often twisted to an airline’s advantage. I could start a whole blog devoted to EU 261 abuses. Alas, there’s only one of me. What’s the latest on those human cloning experiments?

      1. I wonder whether the airlines that try to twist EU 261 are the American ones, perhaps because they thing they can get away from it, or whether all the airlines are more likely to try to deny claims by American passengers on the theory that we’re too far away to appeal. There are online websites with the proper forms to fill out, though; you don’t have to go through a third-party service that will take part of anything you get back: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/holidays/article-2271213/How-claim-EU-flight-delay-compensation-EC-261-2004.html.

  3. We discovered the technique of asking “why” at age 3, but by age 5, we had learned two potential responses: “none of your business” (with the last word sometimes said as “beezwax”) and “because” (pronounced with both syllables emphasized and thus never spelled “cuz”, “cos”, “cause”, “bc”, “b/c”, or any of those other abominable spellings of this word seen today).

    On to the real stuff – this type of stuff is even used by the lowest level of transportation organizations – public transportation, including commuter railroads. SEPTA, which runs the commuter rail lines in the Philadelphia area, used to have an on-time service guarantee: a fare refund or free ticket for a future ride if a train was > 15 minutes late in getting one to one’s destination. There were so many exceptions that I rarely was able to collect on this. The program was eventually dropped. Some things that were excluded were weather- or season-related delays (such as coating on tracks caused by something in falling leaves that makes rails slippery in the fall and causes trains to have to slow down) and issues with sharing the line with freight or Amtrak trains.

  4. The excuse never worked with parents, grandparents, teachers, professors, bosses, or my wife. Why are businesses exempt?

  5. All EU 261 is doing is pushing up airfares everyone will pay. A compulsory insurance effectively.
    We all know that the European parliament is a huge joke just like the TSA, so why don’t more countries just simply ignore it ?

      1. regulation & particularly over regulation will always increase costs.
        More people have to be employed to handle it for a start.
        If all airfares were 100% non-refundable, then airlines would simply have to employ less people & overheads reduced.

        1. Regulation protects incumbent companies by raising the barrier to market entry. This is unlikely to allow airlines to increase prices because there are already substantial barriers to starting a new commercial airline.

    1. Why not just then ignore ALL the laws that will increase costs? Who cares about the consumers? Let’s just sell ’em a ticket, not fly them anywhere, and laugh when they complain! (note the sarcasm)

      Not all it does is increase costs, if it does increase costs at all. Would too love to see evidence, not just supposition. And anyway, there do need to be rules in place to protect consumers, as these giant companies do seem to have a slight advantage over their customers.

      1. in OZ, we have lots of left wing governments (way left of Obama).
        Most of these people, are union leaders, who have never had real jobs, let alone ever run a business & they impose stupid rules just like EU261 in Europe, without any thought as to who’s going to end up paying for them.
        If a rule is stupid, don’t follow it. Simple.

  6. I’m just curious, what time was the original flight supposed to arrive in Gainsville? Arriving at or near midnight seems like you’re cutting it a little close to go to classes the next morning. Delays do happen. I think if there was some kind of issue at the arrival airport, and for all AA knew there was, if the airline got me to the next closest airport, I’d be mostly ok with it. It would be nice if they covered my ground transportation costs, but I don’t know that I’d ask for a full refund. It looks like Jacksonville Airport is a little less than 80 miles from Gainsville. I mean, that’s not exactly stranded, right? What did she ask the airline to do to help get those 78 miles when the plane landed in Jacksonville? It’s only $144, so yes, I think the airline should have just refunded and washed their hands of it. I wonder if the threat of small claims court was in the first email, and that’s why there was no response. Overall, I’m not sure this is the best example to use to make your point. It feels a little shoehorned.

    1. I went to UF. Gainesville is a small town and she likely left her car there or had a ride arranged. I loved my friends in college, but I doubt any of them would have come to Jacksonville to get me at midnight. It’s not really a highway road. Also, she’s a college kid. How is she going to lean on skeleton airline crew to get her to Gainesville at that hour?

      1. I just don’t think you throw your hands in the air and then demand a full refund after the fact when you didn’t give them a chance to fix things at the time. I also think if the original plan was to fly in that late for morning classes, that was cutting close. But in this case, since it was $144, then the refund was appropriate.

        1. I am of the opinion that it doesn’t matter if it’s 78 miles or 500 miles. They didn’t get her to Gainesville and it wasn’t because of weather. They didn’t provide any transportation options that we know of, like getting everyone on a chartered bus to Gainesville.

  7. I love Southwest but you have to keep an eye on them too. I was scheduled to fly out of PHL in 2011 and got an early morning text saying my flight had been delayed, which turned out to be about four hours and I missed work resulting in using a vacation day. I filed a complaint and at first they tried to blame weather, even though I had first flight of the day (no cascade effect so the plane was already there) and there was no weather in the country affecting my fligh to RDU. ALSO! A rep told me early in the morning it was due to the flight crew getting in late and not having enough rest before taking off and they couldn’t get another one in on time. Having dated a pilot, I knew this was the real issue and stated it in writing. Refund!

  8. Here’s my experience with southwest. A year ago my wife and I were travelling from Ft Lauderdale to Philadelphia. Our flight was delayed by less than one hour. During the wait the southwest agent announced every passenger would receive a voucher good for a future flight. We were called to the podium in alphabetical order and everyone got a voucher.

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