Airline shenanigans: Is it really a “weather” delay?

Airline Shenanigans: Is it Really a “Weather” Delay?

(Editor’s note: This blog originally appear on Medium)

Getting hundreds and thousands of airplanes on and off airport gates and runways, and orchestrating their movement in the sky, is no small feat. Hard enough in normal circumstances, this complex exercise becomes even more difficult due to acts of man (e.g., terrorism), technology (airline or ATC computer failures), and nature (bad weather).

Airlines are exempt from providing travelers compensation when their flight plans are disrupted due to weather delays. But when is a “weather” delay really a weather delay? As airlines are getting a bad rap for beating their customers, or whacking mothers off with their own strollers, it is useful to consider how they abuse bad weather to avoid legitimate compensation for poor service.

Bad weather comes in many forms. A severe storm can close off even a big airport such as San Francisco or Chicago O’Hare. But, more often, poor weather reduces the throughput rate at an airport, i.e., how many landings or departures it can handle per minute. This reduction occurs because such conditions force traffic controllers to use fewer runways or put additional space between consecutive arriving or departing aircraft.

SFO is particularly plagued with such delays due to low clouds or winds. Air traffic doesn’t come to a halt but is reduced. This is where nature takes a walk, and deliberate operational decision making takes over. Suppose United Airlines at SFO had 30 aircraft scheduled for takeoff during an hour, and is informed by traffic control that only 20 of these can leave. Which 10 should be delayed? A 747 to Frankfurt with, say, $300,000 worth of ticketed seats? Or, a small Embraer Jet to nearby Sacramento with only $2,000 worth of sold seats? United will likely kick off the flight to Sacramento. This is even more likely to happen if that flight is running quite empty!

What this example shows is that even when weather creates new constraints, it is the airline that decides to delay a particular flight. It weights its own costs while deciding which flights get delayed. These decisions can even impact passengers whose from/to airports are different from the airports affected by weather. If so, should the airline be absolved of the consequent costs to passengers? What if a canceled flight on a short route were the last one for the evening? Passengers could just rent cars and get home, rather than manage an overnight stay on their own. Shouldn’t the airline cover these costs, given that the airline chose this flight rather than another with $300,000 worth of sold seats? What if one airline gave off its take-off spot to another for a payment?

Even if the airline could hide behind regulations for this delayed flight, think of all the ripple effects of each decision. Shouldn’t these additional effects, at least, be attributed to the airline’s deliberate decision, rather than to weather? That delayed flight to Sacramento? What if that plane were to be used for a return trip to SFO, with passengers who had paid thousands of dollars for connecting flights to Dallas or Frankfurt or Delhi? Or, what if the ripple effect of the same plane being used during the day on multiple routes caused a passenger to a miss their flight from Los Angeles to Sydney?

What if someone were traveling for a scheduled wedding, an important meeting, or an emergency? Blaming the delay on nature absolves the airline from finding the most attractive alternative option for the passenger. Take the passenger going to Dallas: perhaps, there’s a seat on an American Airlines flight nonstop to Dallas. United would consider that option if the delay were caused by a mechanical problem but not due to this act of nature. The same for the passenger traveling to Sydney: United could have sent the passenger on a Delta flight to Los Angeles, in time for the connection to Sydney.

So, next time your flight is delayed, and the airline staff blame it on weather and don’t accommodate you reasonably well, think again. There may be bad weather, somewhere, but that doesn’t mean your flight delay was caused by weather. Ask and inquire whether you have been treated justly.


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