Image: Looking for delays
Frank Franklin Ii  /  AP
An airline passenger is seen watching for flight delays on monitors at LaGuardia Airport in New York.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 8/7/2007 12:32:29 PM ET 2007-08-07T16:32:29

With all of the hurricanes, floods, tornados and the Weather Channel striking unrelenting fear into many viewers, it is getting more and more evident that we are all just pawns when it comes to extreme weather events. This is especially true when it comes to air travel, for no one can control the weather.

You may get a great deal on your airfare or have planned your trip down to the smallest detail, but when the clouds roll in and the lightning puts on its show, you may find yourself either sleeping at the airport or shelling out a couple of hundred bucks for a miserable airport hotel room.

Long ago, the airlines were totally responsible for getting you from point A to point B. You paid money for this service and if for any reason you missed your connection or the flight canceled, the airlines picked up associated fees like food and lodging.

Today, this is far from the case. Granted, there are many more people flying today and if the airlines were required to cover hotel expenses for the thousands that are stranded nightly, this would pretty much be the final nail in the coffin for many carriers. But this doesn't mean they should get off lightly with a shrug of the shoulders or take advantage of the situation.

It may be a clear day at your airport of origin, but if your airplane comes in from somewhere that is affected by weather, all bets and compensation are off.

So now, every chance they get, the airlines will try to pin everything on Mother Nature in an attempt to avoid compensating you with a hotel room or even a happy meal from the airport McDonalds. Even the flight attendants onboard are instructed to offer a free alcoholic drink if the delay is over 90 minutes, but the instruction is followed by big black bold letters, except in all cases due to weather.

With some airlines, it has become a game of six degrees of separation and the magic word being weather. In my 18 years of flying, I have heard some of the lamest weather excuses. Here's a few actual examples some airlines have linked the cause to weather and weaseled their way out of covering expenses.

  • The pilots scheduled to fly your flight didn't make it in because of a thunderstorm on the other side of the country.
  • The airplane has a hydraulic leak that was caused by inclement weather.
  • Last week's bad weather was the blame for the schedule reduction today.
  • Freezing smog prevented the inbound aircraft from taking off.
  • We are cancelling your flight to accommodate passengers from another flight whose airport was closed earlier in the day due to thunderstorms.

Now weather is a fact of life, and if you fly enough there is just no getting around it. But this doesn't mean you have to be caught unprepared. The following are some tips on weathering the airline storm.

1. Travel early in the day. The chances of your getting inconvenienced by a weather event such as a thunderstorm, hail, or blizzard increase dramatically as the day goes on.

2. Fly nonstop. If possible, pay the extra amount and skip the connection. And if you have to connect, make the connection as early as possible. For example, if you are going to Germany from Santa Barbara and have a choice of connecting in New York at 5 p.m. or in Los Angeles at 1 p.m., go for the LAX connection.

3. Be aware. With the availability of the Internet and the Weather Channel, there is no excuse of being unaware of inclement weather issues regarding your point of origin, destination or connecting cities. If you are scheduled to connect in O'Hare and they are expecting a major thunderstorm, see if a last minute re-route is possible.

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4. Have back-up numbers. It is always good to have the numbers of a few reliable hotels just in case. When an airport closes there is always a massive rush to airport hotels. If you have a number readily available, it could save you hassles, time, and a lot of money.

5. Remember: size matters. The bigger the airplane the less likely you will cancel due to weather. If you have a choice of aircraft, take the wide-body. It will also save you the annoyance of severe turbulence as the bigger the airplane the less weather bumps.

6. Skip the long line. When your flight cancels due to weather, everyone heads to the long customer service line. Many airlines have customer service stations utilizing computers with printers and telephones. These areas can help you just as much, if not more, than the customer service desk.

7. Get frequent. Use the airline that has many daily flights to your destination, not just one a day. You have much more of a chance to get to your destination if there are several options.

8. Ask, investigate, and complain. If your flight is delayed, ask for meal vouchers. If it is canceled, ask for hotel vouchers. If you think their weather claim is bogus, investigate and complain by mail. Many times the airline will reimburse your hotel expenses in the form of travel credit. Hey, it's better than nothing, unless you are adamant never to fly with that airline again.

9. Get a discount. Many airlines have deals with airport hotels that can get you a sizeable discount on a last-minute hotel rooms. If you see a crewmember in the airport ask him for a hotel recommendation because with the swarm of commuters these days, he is bound to have one or two handy.

10. Weather the storm. If all hotels are booked solid and the airport is closed, put on your headphones and go to your happy place. Realize that this frustrating experience is only a minor glitch that will eventually come to an end.

If you can find it, there is humor in everything, for people watching and laughter can truly turn your ordeal into a tolerable inconvenience.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

Video: On-time flights drop to record lows


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