Fallows: Airline Lies About Cancelling Flight To Avoid Passenger Obligations

Journalist, former Presidential speechwriter, and private pilot James Fallows complained on twitter about his United flight that was delayed just under 24 hours – and he attributes the decision to delay rather than cancel the flight to an anti-consumer conspiracy.

His followers on twitter are wrongly led to believe that this is so passengers aren’t entitled to a refund. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Department of Transportation actually does require refunds for significant delays.

A consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel.

Each airline defines ‘significant’ in this context. For instance, American Airlines is the least generous amount major airlines, publishing a rule in its Contract of Carriage that a refund is obligated in the event of delay of more than 4 hours.

And it’s not just refunds. As the DOT consumer dashboard shows, each airline’s policies to the customer are the same for significant delays as they are for cancellations.

It turns out that Fallows’ complaint about consumers having their rights trampled on by United playing games with flight delays is about as real as commentator David Brooks’ $78 airport meal.

What’s far more relevant than whether a flight is cancelled or significantly delayed is that cause of that cancellation; whether it’s controllable (like running out of available crew or mechanical problems) or uncontrollable (like weather or air traffic control shutdown).

And in fact, it turns out that it can actually be beneficial to all involved for an airline to delay a flight significantly instead of cancelling it.

  • Benefit to the airline: they need the plane and crew at the destination
  • Benefit to passengers: they are guaranteed a seat the next day (when the flight operates) versus a planeload of passengers needing to be reaccommodated with limited available seats across other flights.

There can be ‘games’ being played in significantly delaying instead of cancelling a flight, but even those don’t hurt the customer. Before the pandemic Delta Air Lines was much more reliable. They didn’t cancel mainline flights in some instances for months at a time. And over key times when they wanted to extend their streak, or report that they didn’t cancel flights over a holiday weekend, they would delay a flight indefinitely – and pay big money to employees to work extra flights – just to keep up their streak.

Fallows has written books on aviation. I found his 2012 China Airborne insightful. He should know certainly better.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. As long as they wouldn’t cancel it later, I’d rather have a delayed flight because of the guaranteed seats. However, I’d still like to have the choice of free changing to another flight with an available seat.

  2. @Gary with the impending shutdown of the US government in 5 days, which means American ATC will be working unpaid, how long before ATC starts causing delays (which I believe is one of the reasons, the last shutdown ended – when ATC delays piled up and down the east coast, during Trump’s time as president).
    My advice to anyone with upcoming travel plans, buy trip insurance!

  3. Does Gary Leff know his subscription to Boardingarea is delayed? Maybe the links are cancelled, but for me it is delayed 3 minutes at least (gave up after that)

  4. I was on British Air from LHR to DXB in Aug 2023. Flight was delayed 4+ hrs (someone onboard messed with the oxygen masks and they had to be reset) however when look back on Flightaware or BA.com to check the timing – it shows that flight flew slightly delated (under 2hrs). That’s not accurate. How do they get away with this mis-reported info? (You can’t file a claim against the airline for the delay when the system shows inaccurate take-off and arrival times)…

  5. @Daniel: I can only speak for United, but I’ve never had an issue getting switched to a different flight with available seats in the event of a delay, or standing by if there’s no inventory.

  6. The common link to when I was lied to about the weather causing a delay was United Airlines. I haven’t flown on them since.

  7. This has been going on for so long. I actually stuck with United during the conversion from Continental. The Shameful CEO was Jeff Smisek. The attendants reminded me when things went wrong “We’re sorry, but you know everything is all Jeff’d up!”

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