A few minutes after Michele Loftin’s recent commuter flight from Sacramento to San Francisco pushed back from the gate, it made an abrupt U-turn and returned to the terminal. A United Airlines crew member told passengers that the aircraft’s de-icer test had failed, and the airline eventually canceled the flight.
Loftin, a retired social worker from Roseville, Calif., wouldn’t normally care about broken de-icers. But when she contacted the airline and asked it to cover her expenses for the 24-hour delay leading up to the cancellation, a company representative told her that she was on her own. “They informed me that our flight was canceled due to air traffic control issues, not mechanical issues,” she says.
The reasons for an airline delay matter. United’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between passengers and the airline — provides compensation for mechanical delays. It states that if a cancellation is caused by the airline, it will provide a hotel room and pay for meals and transportation to and from the hotel. By changing the reason for the cancellation to air traffic, United was letting itself off the hook.
“It’s disturbing to think that the crew on the plane would lie to the passengers,” says Loftin. “But it’s even more troubling if airlines aren’t correctly reporting mechanical issues.”
The major U.S. airlines are required to report the causes of their flight delays to the Department of Transportation every month. When they do, they have to identify one of five reasons, which include delays caused by factors under the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems; aviation system delays; late-arriving aircraft; extreme weather; and security. The Federal Aviation Administration reviews air traffic control delays to ensure that they’re being filed correctly, but the DOT doesn’t routinely audit carrier cause-of-delay reports.
“If we have reason to believe that a carrier’s reports are inaccurate, we will investigate, and false filings may be subject to civil penalties and possibly serious criminal penalties,” says Bill Mosley, a DOT spokesman. “We would look into a situation in which a consumer may have been harmed by being given false information by an airline about the cause of a delay.”
Mosley says it’s possible that United told Loftin the truth both times — in other words, that the de-icer didn’t work and that it couldn’t operate the flight because of air traffic issues. Often, he says, a flight is initially delayed for mechanical reasons. Even if the problem is fixed, the carrier can’t take off because of air traffic control restrictions and is forced to cancel.
But when Loftin tried to find answers, United seemed unwilling to offer more than a form response. It initially responded with an e-mail apologizing for “a higher volume of e-mail than normal” but reassuring her that “United trusts the discretion of our flight crews in the reports made.” When she pressed for details about her flight, United sent her another form letter listing “flow control,” which relates to air traffic, as the first cause of delay. There appeared to be no mention of a broken de-icer in the final report.