New site aims to help with flight delays — but the devil is in the details

FAN Editor

On the surface, the recent announcement by the U.S Department of Transportation of a new online consumer “dashboard” for air travelers seemed to give passengers some hope. For the first time, consumers can easily view their rights in the event of a flight delay or cancellation and compare the policies of 10 of the biggest airlines in the U.S.

In theory, at least, this seems helpful. The major airlines agreed that when a delay or cancellation forced passengers to be stuck overnight in a city where they didn’t live, and the problem was directly the airline’s fault — a missing crew member, a mechanical issue, or a delayed incoming flight — they would provide a meal and a hotel for the night. And if they are unable to do so, they would offer compensation. 

The major exception where the airlines are off the hook: delays or cancellations due to weather, an event beyond their control.

But the devil is in the details — and in the fine print of each airline’s contract of carriage, as well as their published customer policies. A deeper dive into the language of each airline’s policy reveals that getting that hotel room or meal — or “compensation” if the room isn’t available— may not be so easy. 

What is “reasonable” compensation?

Here are the challenges. 

In many cases, the burden may be on you, first to show that the airline could, in fact, provide you a hotel room. Sometimes the airline might not be able to provide enough rooms, and in that case, the compensation they offer you might not even come close to paying for a hotel room you find on your own.

It all comes down to what the airline considers “reasonable” compensation — and each airline is different. United might approve anything under $200. But Delta puts a limit of $100, and currently doesn’t give cash, only vouchers for future flights. Other airlines, like American, don’t acknowledge a specific amount or limit.

Furthermore, assuming a room is available, don’t expect a full-service hotel, or a hotel very close to the airport. More often than not, you”ll check into an amenity-free budget hotel where the airline has pre-negotiated a low-rate deal for a block of rooms.

Travelers look at a display board showing cancelled flights at Orlando International Airport
Travelers look at a display board showing cancelled and delayed flights at Orlando International Airport. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Offering meal vouchers or a hotel room when the airline is at fault is not new. The airlines have been doing this for years, but on a case-by-case basis, and in many cases only for their most valuable frequent flyers. Until now, if you were flying in the back of the plane, there were no guarantees the airline would take care of you.

Again, it gets down to a definition of terms and how the airlines interpret the words “controllable delays.”

And, just because the individual carrier policies are now listed on the DOT Airline Customer Service Dashboard, don’t expect the airlines to volunteer your rights. First you need to know them, and then proactively remind the airline if your flight is delayed or canceled.

What about weather delays?

Then there’s the tricky and often misleading definition of the word “weather.” How many times have you been at your departure airport, where the weather is beautiful, only to be told your flight is delayed or canceled because of weather? Then you call a friend at your destination and discover the weather is great there as well.

So, is the airline lying to you? 

More often than not, the airline is telling the truth, but they haven’t put the weather report in proper context. The airline weather forecasters might see a storm front moving towards your destination airport closer to your arrival time, and they don’t want to release your flight because they’re concerned you’ll have to divert to an alternate airport.

Or the weather may already be at the location where the plane assigned to your flight is flying from. Another variable: connecting flights and the weather at intermediate airports.

One important tactic — call the airline before you head to the airport. Ask about the weather in three locations. The weather at your departure airport. The weather at your destination airport, for the approximate time of your arrival there. And if you’re connecting to another flight, the weather at that airport.

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