By November 18, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:19:50 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:19:50

If bad weather grounds your flight on a stopover, what should your airline do to help you? According to most airline contracts, the answer is "nothing." But after one passenger experiences a string of delays on her way from Memphis to Vail, Colo. - some of them mechanical-related - the airline's claim that it's off the hook starts to ring hollow. Now her daughter is stuck with a hotel bill that the airline agreed to pay. Find out who is responsible for what - and how you can prevent this from happening to you on your next flight.

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Q: I recently flew from Memphis to Vail, Colo., via Dallas on American Airlines. Because of weather problems, our flight to Dallas was delayed by more than two hours. Our pilot assured us that all Dallas flights were delayed and our connection would still be available.

But my connecting flight was already gone when I arrived. I selected another flight through Denver leaving a little later to avoid waiting 24 hours to catch the next scheduled flight to Vail.

That's when the trouble really started. Our departure time and gate numbers changed, not once, not twice, but three times. Finally we were scheduled to fly out at 9 p.m. - but after waiting until our departure time without boarding, we were notified that the flight was canceled because there was no one to staff the plane.

In the meantime, my daughter was driving from Durango to Vail to meet my originally scheduled flight. When she arrived, she was told that I was scheduled to fly into Denver at about 7:30 p.m. So she drove to Denver.

My daughter was unable to find any information on my arrival from anyone at the airport, with the exception of the flight number being on one of the baggage claim turnstiles. She had to spend the night in a hotel while she waited on my non-arriving flight.

After our flight was canceled, American Airlines personnel told us that we could stay at a hotel at our own expense or in the airport on cots waiting for the newly scheduled flight. Most of us chose the hotel.

I finally got to Denver the following morning.

In a subsequent conversation with American's customer-relations department, a representative agreed to send me a check for $100 to cover the costs of my daughter's hotel. Instead, she sent a voucher. Can you help me get the money that the airline agreed to pay me?

-- Jean Millen

A: Talk about a string of broken promises.

First, you're assured that your flight hasn't left when, in fact, it has. Then you're promised a seat on a canceled flight. Then you're offered a check that you never get.

What's going on here?

I asked American for its side of the story. The airline claims your problems were fundamentally weather-related. "As you well know, weather is beyond our control and it is standard in the industry that airlines usually do not compensate customers for weather-related delays or expenditures," said spokesman Tim Wagner.

I agree. American's contract of carriage - the agreement between the airline and its customer - is crystal-clear on this matter. If the weather interferes with the operation of a flight, the airline is off the hook.

So why would it tell you otherwise? I think it's because this wasn't a black-and-white weather-delay case. I mean, if you had booked a seat on the canceled flight to Denver, then you would have been entitled to compensation under rule 18 of American's contract.

In other words, the proverbial domino that started this chain reaction was the weather. But it was kept going by a series of events that were under American Airlines' control.

And what about the promises? "Our crews are instructed to not assure customers that connecting flights will be held," Wagner told me. "In certain instances that may be true, but in general it is not true for significant delays."

Regarding your payment, American's records show that you were promised a flight voucher, not a check.

I have a few suggestions. First and foremost, buy a cell phone and ask your daughter to buy one, too. I mean, it's the 21st Century, and a mobile phone is cheaper than a land line. If you had been able to communicate, you could have avoided a lot of the confusion you experienced.
Second, when you're stranded in a hub because of weather, whip out your cell phone immediately, call your airline, and identify multiple options to your final destination. You had only picked only one flight, which unfortunately never left the ground.

Here's another tip: Even when an airline isn't covering your hotel room, it can often supply you with a "distressed traveler" voucher that entitles you to hotel discounts. The moment it even seems a possibility that you'll be spending the night at an airport, you should ask for the voucher and call the hotel to make sure a room is available.

Considering your ordeal, American agreed to offer a check to reimburse your daughter's hotel room. You're also free to keep the $100 flight voucher and use it toward another flight on American.

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