Image: Ground crews work during a storm at Laguardia airport
Frank Franklin II / AP file
The next few months traditionally bring blizzards, ice storms and cold winter rains with them, offering more opportunities for airlines to play the weather card.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/9/2008 3:32:10 PM ET 2008-07-09T19:32:10

Is your airline telling the truth about the weather?

If you were a passenger on one of the more than 1,200 United Airlines flights canceled since Dec. 23, you might have wondered — particularly after its pilots claimed the carrier was understaffed during the peak travel period, contradicting the airline’s explanation that winter storms were to blame for its actions.

And if you had a ticket on Northwest Airlines last summer, and one of your flights was called off because of what the airline said were thunderstorms, but everyone else said was a pilot shortage, you might also have your doubts.

Heck, you don’t even have to fly to distrust an airline. Have you seen the commercial with the pilot and the iPhone yet? The air traffic control says there’s a weather delay. Pilot pulls up the weather report on his phone and finds there’s no weather problem. Tower clears the flight. “Everybody was happy, and life was good,” he says.

If you’re not asking about weather delays yet, you probably will be. The next few months traditionally bring blizzards, ice storms and cold winter rains with them, offering more opportunities for airlines to play the weather card.

And they almost certainly will, say analysts. That’s because of a quirk in the way weather delays and cancellations are reported, an unusually generous definition of weather adopted by airlines, and passenger contracts that are written in a way that gives airlines every incentive to blame Mother Nature.

For the record, the airlines insist they’re telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, when it comes to climate-caused cancellations. Asked about its Christmastime meltdown, United Airlines e-mailed me a letter sent to employees by Pete McDonald, its chief operating officer, which explained the situation. “Through the month of December, we were affected by significant irregular operations, particularly at O’Hare, as a result of repeated weather events, including ice, fog, wind and snow,” he wrote. “We also struggled through snowstorms in Denver. In fact, weather and air traffic control delays affected United twice as much as the rest of the industry.”

That may be true, but there’s likely more to it than that, say observers. Here are five things your airline probably won’t tell you about weather delays:

‘Weather is only half of the story — and it’s not the interesting half.’
“If there is a hint of bad weather anywhere, that will be used as the excuse,” says Holly Hegeman, an airline industry analyst with PlaneBusiness.com. But there’s often more at work. In United’s case, a pilot shortage exacerbated by a frayed relationship between pilots and management was probably the primary cause. “I think United looked pretty guilty the last two weeks, as American did not post similar cancellation numbers, nor did Southwest, out of O’Hare or Midway, for the same time periods,” she says.

‘When we call it a weather delay, we’re off the hook.’
“It’s very convenient to put weather over any other shortcomings,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Forrester Research. Why? Because under most airline contracts of carriages — the legal agreements between you and the airlines — weather is considered an “Act of God” and it basically means the carrier owes passengers nothing. “They don’t have to offer you accommodations, meals or hotel vouchers,” he says. “It’s a giant loophole that the airline likes to fly through.”

‘We’re on the honor system when we report a weather delay.’
When an airline says a flight is affected by weather we have to take it at its word. The data is reported to the government but not subjected to any kind of formal audit. Since it first required airlines to report the causes of delays five years ago, the government has red-flagged weather delay numbers only twice. In 2005, SkyWest Airlines was fined $25,000 for “inappropriately attributing flight delays to the National Aviation System,” according to a consent order. And last year, JetBlue Airways was told it had incorrectly tagged some of its winter cancellations as “air carrier” delays, when, in fact, weather should have been cited. It was not fined.

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‘Our definition of a weather delay is absurdly loose.’
“Squishy,” is how Meara McLaughlin, vice president of business development for flight data site FlightStats.com, describes the new airline definition of weather. “The definition of weather has expanded a bit,” she says. It isn’t just the conditions at your airport, along the way, or at your destination that count, but weather anywhere in the system that can be invoked. That’s because the airlines’ so-called “hub and spoke” system relies on aircraft coming from other cities, which could be affected by weather. “To my way of thinking, you have to call that something other than weather,” she says. As someone who processes a lot of aviation data, McLaughlin believes airlines are applying this looser definition of weather with greater frequency.

‘We’re even confused by the way we report weather delays.’
Robert Mann, an airline analyst who has investigated how airlines report delays on behalf of the Transportation Department, says the process can even be confusing to someone inside an airline. Each carrier has what he calls “inherent biases” to the way it classifies a delay. It all comes down to who gets to report the delay internally. “If the gate agent has the opportunity to code the delay, they won’t code it as [being their fault] because they could lose bonuses or get a bad review,” he says. “But if you give the reporting capability to someone else, they’ll code it a different way.” More often than not, it’s the bottom line that holds the most sway over how a delay is reported — what kind of delay will cost an airline the least, in terms of compensation paid to passengers or on-time rankings.

So what’s a passenger to do when a flight is delayed or canceled because of a storm? Arguing with a ticket agent is pointless, because the agent isn’t making the call — it’s someone down the line, safe out of your reach.

Your most effective weapon is not information, but politeness. It could get you a hotel room or a meal voucher even when you aren’t entitled to one, and it could put you on the next available flight to your destination.

And next time an airline says your flight is canceled because of the weather, don’t bother looking out your window.

Because what you see doesn’t really matter.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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