American Airlines Announces New Policy, Use This The Next Time They Blame Weather

When a flight delays, airlines almost always blame weather. Factors outside of their control mean they don’t owe you anything, like a hotel to spend the night in or meals at the airport. But American Airlines CEO Robert Isom now says that when his airline fails to recover from problems, that’s on them and they owe their customers. That’s a sea change, following on the Southwest Airlines debacle over the holidays. But not everyone in the company’s customer service department may be ready to change.

Southwest Started Blaming Weather, But Eventually Took Responsibility

Southwest Airlines kept saying that weather was the cause of their holiday meltdown, and in a sense it was true. Without bad weather there wouldn’t have been the stresses on their system that revealed understaffing and IT problems. Their phone systems wouldn’t have collapsed. They wouldn’t have lost track of crew. Agents initially used weather as a reason to deny covering costs for stranded passengers.

I wrote that weather was no longer plausible as an excuse days after weather had improved, and other airline operations had fully recovered. And whether because of self-interest (preventing long-term damage to their reputation), because they realized it was the right thing to do, or because of pressure from the Department of Transportation, Southwest still talked up weather as instigating their problems but also stepped up to say they would cover reasonable hotel and alternate transportation expenses for passengers (results of this have been a mixed bag).

Now Industry Rhetoric Is Changing

Southwest’s about-face has shifted rhetoric in the industry over what is owed to passengers and when. At 7 minutes 10 seconds into American Airlines CEO Robert Isom’s CNBC Squawk Box interview on Thursday he said that when a delay or cancellation is the fault of the airline – including when “we don’t recover the way we should” – “we owe the customers.”

Airlines Should Take More Responsibility Than Just Blaming Weather. Tell American This.

When your airline blames weather, and passengers look outside and see clear skies, they don’t understand what the airline is talking about. It might be weather where the plane is coming from, or along the route!

But just as likely the airline means that there was a delay with the same aircraft, two or three flights earlier in the day, and that was because of weather. The airline didn’t recover from their earlier delay, and weather in completely unrelated cities is the excuse not to take responsibility for inconveniencing passengers because those passengers had the bad luck of sharing a plane (or crewmembers) in the airline’s operations.

American’s CEO says they’re responsible for recovering their operations. That is likely news to American’s Customer Relations team. If you send in a request for compensation due to a delay that the carrier stretches to call ‘weather-related’, respond with this clip from their boss’s boss’s boss saying “not so fast, when you don’t recover your operation Robert Isom says you owe your customers!”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I suspect this will be very carefully administered (as it should). I agree the SW example was extreme and other airlines quickly recovered. In that case something may be due (although I suspect airlines will demand receipts and closely scrutinize any submission for reimbursement as they should).

    However, I disagree with you Gary on the example you cited. You seem to believe if there is a weather delay early in the day and a flight 2-3 legs later is cancelled or delayed that should fall under not recovering quickly enough. You, of all people, should know that isn’t practical. The schedule is set and the equipment assigned. If weather causes a delay on the first leg it ripples through the entire day and there is no practical way to fix that. Sure at a hub airport the airline may be able to swap out equipment but that isn’t always the case so I would expect any such delays downstream from a weather event that day would be considered as a “weather event” and no compensation (outside of credits or refunds on flight as appropriate) should be offered.

    The actual language used by the CEO of AA was also very vague and doesn’t speak to exactly what would be owed customers in the event of non recovery – just that something would be owed.

  2. @retired gambler

    Not so fast. The “schedule is set and the equipment assigned” and that is the responsibility of the airline. If they don’t have the equipment and staffing to resolve an issue, that’s on them. They may not want to make the investment in redundancies because it’s not profit-generating. The only way to make such slack worth the investment is if there’s actually a penalty for failure to deliver what the airlines sold to customers.

  3. This has been garbage in the US for way too long. As a long time Delta flyer I am pretty tired of having them deny anything days after a weather event in Atlanta. They have a choice, either have enough redundancy to recover quicker or take care of your customers. Being able to claim “weather” days later shouldn’t be acceptable. But the customer has pretty much zero power.

  4. @Adam, there is another way to make such slack with the investment: be more profitable. As it stands, Gary has documented for years that AA only generates their profits from the AAdvantage program. That lack of profitability is one of the biggest drivers of their inability to invest.

  5. @roundtree, so the lack of AA profitability is their customer fault? Or is it weather-related? 😉

  6. My personal recent experience.

    12/25 – lucky to be on AA (vs being on WN). I did not have a seat assignment for my party and was a bit scared by overbooking but everything played out fine and got to my destination on time.

    1/2 – return flight. 9am they force me to change flights because they already know about equipment failure that will result in a misconnect. Only one option to change without having to fly a red-eye. Switched to that and fell victim to radar problem in FL. Ended up misconnected in MIA with rebooking one full day later. That was not acceptable, had to rent a car and drive through the night.

    But where the problem really lies, every AA employee I spoke to kept blaming FAA trickling flights into FL. Very true but they conveniently forget that I was not even supposed to be on that flight. Pulling anything out of customer service such as a letter explaining the real reason of the delay required a conversation with supervisor after an hour in line just to get to an agent. They agents do not listen and/or unable to process the information conveyed to them. Not at customer service rebooking center, not at the baggage claim, barely at email customer service after 3-4 emails.

    I’m not a fan of regulations but we need US261. They will not invest in better experience if it doesn’t cost anything to inconvenience passengers.

  7. Interesting,
    in the EU, even if its weather related or anything else that the airline canNOT control, they still have to take care of you (under EU261) and pay for food, hotels, transportation from/to the hotel and rebook you on the next available flight [with any airline].
    The last part most airlines don’t do, but the rest they are ‘good’.

    I wonder what a U.S. POI would be on this.
    One could argue, its too expensive for an airplane to cover for anything that its not their fault (as in weather), but its not like airlines over here don’t make profit and still consumers are protected.

  8. @Adam – As someone that was at the highest level of IT for national companies for many years I fully understand redundancy, business interruption plans and contingency planning. However, I don’t think any airline can just have extra planes and crew available just in case there are flights running behind due to weather. I seriously doubt ANY one day disruption triggered by weather, even impacting downstream flights, would rise to the level that any compensation was provided.

    You can talk about what airlines “should do” and what is “fair” but you are just wasting your breath. These are for profit companies that first and foremost look out for their shareholders (as they are expected to do). Passengers would likely come 2nd and employees 3rd in that equation. As someone that worked for public companies that was expected and there is a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for shareholders.

    These are not charities! They will ONLY provide compensation or reimbursement that is either mandated by the government or required due to competitive pressures. You and others may not like it but that is the way it works. Now don’t you feel smarter!?

  9. @Michael – actual EU261 has some outs for things outside the airline’s reasonable control. This isn’t a blank check and never should be. On the other hand you can all want more compensation (love the losers with their hand out instead of accepting that “stuff happens” ) or extra staffing and planes. However, be prepared for 50% more expensive flights. I’m financially set so that isn’t a problem for me but may be for some of you.

  10. The airlines have proven that they will SAY “the right things”. It’s the follow through that often fails . Right now , the airlines are rightfully worried about having enforceable passenger rights thrust upon them .
    Heck , I had a mechanical cancellation last week on paid J ticket and when the airline started hesitating and hedging , I pulled up the DOT dashboard for the airline and showed the manager the airline’s commitment to rebook on partner or OAL for controllable delays. The frontline employees seemingly have no idea what their execs have promised.

  11. And then there’s the time (AA in this case) had an inbound flight coming from Austin to Las Vegas that was supposed to turn around and return to Austin. I bought at ticket at 10:35 for a noon flight, left a meeting and raced to LAS – but in the 20 minutes it took me to drive from the hotel to the car rental return, suddenly the flight was 2 1/2 hours late. (Same inbound flight landed on time, but CLEARLY – the plane was reassigned to another, presumably more cranky set of passengers). This has happened to me at least once a year for the last 10 years. The story got worse – when we finally did take off late – an afternoon thunderstorm closed the field and required us to divert to DFW. So my 2 hour nonstop flight ended up taking me nearly 12 hours – at least we made it to Austin at midnight. THAT is the kind of thing that should be penalized.

  12. I was once on a PBI-BOS Delta flight where the inbound aircraft took a 2 hour mechanical delay at its origin. So eventually we departed for BOS, obviously arriving close to 2 hours after the scheduled arrival. Inbound into Logan, the plane went into a brief ATC hold over Providence, perhaps 10 minutes. Upon walking into the terminal, I turned to look at the gate board to see where this aircraft was headed next. It was bound for FLL, and it was posted as “Delayed ATC”. So the original 2 hour mechanical morphed into an ATC delay!

  13. Good to see the regulators stepping in (or are you still under the illusion that this change is voluntary LOL)

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