Eventually, the pilot on his flight from Chicago admitted that the real reason for the holdup was a “late arrival” from Calgary, Canada, where the flight had originated.
Smith consulted United’s contract of carriage and noticed another disclaimer that troubled him as a meteorologist: a clause saying that United wasn’t liable for any misstatements regarding the weather. In other words, he concluded, the airline “can — and does — tell untruths to passengers and then disclaims liability,” he noted. “Since the vast majority of their passengers aren’t meteorologists, they get away with it.”
Janice Hough, a travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif., says that fixing this problem isn’t as simple as ordering an airline to “tell the truth” and threatening it with a fine if it doesn’t. Running an airline is complicated, and the reasons for a delay may not neatly fit one of the DOT’s five categories.
Hough remembers a recent flight from Newark to San Francisco that was delayed an hour because of weather, according to the airline. But her own investigation suggested a different reason. She suspects that her airline — United, again — swapped out the aircraft to minimize another delay.
“No one claims that scheduling aircraft is easy,” she says. “In San Francisco, a lot of so-called weather delays are actually a combination of weather and limited takeoff and landing slots. Air traffic control might limit an airline’s total flights in or out, and the airline decides which of its flights to prioritize and which to delay.”
United is hardly the only airline whose passengers question the reasons for its delays. To figure out what’s happening here, I paid a visit to United’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, toured its operations center — a control room that could easily pass for a NASA mission control center — and met with Jim DeYoung, the facility’s managing director.
I watched him track a series of weather delays affecting Newark, coincidentally, and came away with the impression that the reasons for a delay may not always be crystal-clear, even to someone sitting in United’s ops center. Certainly, a crew member may believe that there’s one reason for a holdup, while someone scheduling the aircraft back in Chicago may blame something else.
The fix isn’t to force an airline such as United to choose a delay category that’s more advantageous to passengers, although the DOT occasionally fines an airline for listing the wrong reasons for a flight delay. The most recent case was in 2007, when the government fined regional carrier Comair $75,000 for listing weather as the cause of numerous flight delays, when in fact a computer meltdown was primarily to blame.
A better solution would be to streamline the airlines’ contracts of carriage so that they clearly define a carrier’s responsibility during a delay. A standard industry contract did exist before the airlines were deregulated more than three decades ago. If the airlines could agree on such a contract, it should provide for a clear and timely disclosure of the reason for a delay, and air carriers should voluntarily tell passengers what compensation, if any, they’re entitled to.
The DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection discussed the feasibility of a model plain-English contract last year. Its recommendations on this issue, which are currently being considered by the government, might help clear up the delay confusion once and for all.
E-mail Christopher Elliott at email@example.com.