The 3 most important questions to ask when your flight gets canceled or delayed

Why airlines won’t and don’t have to compensate passengers after weather problems and what customers can do to fight for some relief.

With American Airlines canceling nearly 1,000 flights since Sunday, thousands of frustrated customers at DFW International Airport were scrambling for hotel rooms as they waited longingly to make their final connections.

And even when skies had cleared Monday and Tuesday, delays and cancellations piled up because American didn’t have enough planes, pilots and flight attendants in the right places to fly weary passengers.

Many of those customers were asking why they had to pay for hotel rooms, meals and taxis when planes were delayed because of a lack of pilots and flight attendants. Customers on Spirit Airlines ran into similar problems with weather over the weekend, similarly wrecking its operations for the next few days and forcing the carrier to cancel more than half of its flights Tuesday.

“This is completely unfair,” said Lucille Maldanado, an American Airlines passenger who was first stranded during Sunday’s thunderstorms during her flight home to New Jersey after vacationing in Turks and Caicos. “We had to stay two nights in a hotel we called and we paid for and $60 for an Uber.”

Social media was flooded with complaints from passengers about the hotel costs and other expenses they racked up waiting for planes to take off.

But getting a refund from an airline during periods of severe weather and subsequent disruptions is difficult, said Paul Hudson, executive director of passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.

“The airlines always want to blame everything on the weather,” Hudson said. “If they blame it on the weather, they don’t have to be responsible for refunds or accommodations if people are stranded.”

Can I get a refund?

Federal law gives airlines a narrow set of circumstances for which they have to refund a passenger the cost of a ticket. If an airline cancels or overbooks a flight, passengers can get their money back and sometimes even extra compensation.

But weather and mechanical issues don’t qualify for federal refunds. And when staffing issues are caused by weather delays as they were this week, the later delays don’t trigger automatic refunds either.

The same goes for compensation for hotels, meals and transportation.

“Some problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control,” the website for the U.S. Department of Transportation says.

American does provide compensation such as hotels for “cancellations or delays that were caused by controllable issues” such as maintenance problems, American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Koos said. It also gives meal vouchers for non-weather-related delays of more than three hours.

But the problems during the past few days were weather-related, the airline said.

Nationwide, weather has been responsible for about 29% of all delays during the past five years, accounting for roughly 256,000 hours of delays, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Maintenance issues and air traffic control delays are the other major factors that cause planes to arrive late.

Pilot unions at both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have argued that major events like the ones this week are more common this summer because the carriers scheduled too many flights after running reduced operations over the past 17 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means there are fewer pilots around to make up for pilots sidelined by bad weather.

Who determines why a flight is delayed?

When flights are delayed or canceled, passengers are often left at the mercy of airlines, both for getting to their destinations and for getting compensation.

Airlines are responsible for reporting the reason for flight delays and cancellations to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That means airlines get to determine who gets vouchers for hotels, meals and transportation.

This week at DFW, passengers complained that the lines were hours long to talk to a customer service representative, the carrier’s app was crashing and the hold time for the call-in number was several hours as well.

Airlines, including American, will often direct passengers to apply for a refund online, which could take days or weeks to get resolved.

Hudson recommends complaining on social media. “You can also go on Facebook and social media and they carefully monitor those accounts,” Hudson said. “Sometimes you will get better results.”

Suing the airline or complaining to the Department of Transportation are the only alternatives left, but suing an airline can be expensive, and a complaint can often take years to resolve. Hudson still pushes passengers to file official complaints if there is a problem because those complaints are sometimes key in helping regulators determine when to pass new rules.

Where can I find out the rules for flying?

All U.S. airlines outline the rules for refunds, delays and cancellations, overbooking and other customer issues on their websites. These “contracts of carriage” or “conditions of carriage” should outline what happens in the event of a delay.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines’ rules say, “If you decide not to fly because your flight was delayed or canceled, we’ll refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees.”

Dallas-based Southwest, which flies out of Dallas Love Field, has similar rules for delays, cancellations and diverted flights.

But Hudson also says that in the event of delays, passengers can try taking their tickets to another carrier, which will sometimes honor the ticket and then charge the other airline later. However, that usually doesn’t work with ultra-low-cost carriers such as Frontier and Spirit.

Kyle Arnold. Kyle Arnold is the aviation writer for The Dallas Morning News, covering airlines, air travel and the aerospace industry. He previously worked as a business journalist for the Orlando Sentinel, Tulsa World and The Monitor in McAllen. He is a University of Washington graduate. /bykylearnold kylelarnold
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