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.
To close the loop here:
-According to FlightAware, the plane finally took off, and landed, 23 hours and 28 minutes "behind schedule." Ie today, not yesterday.
-But, crucially, it was not "cancelled." In which case the obligations to pax would have been different.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) September 23, 2023
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.
This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport. This is why Americans think the economy is terrible. pic.twitter.com/1qeV9qOBL3
— David Brooks (@nytdavidbrooks) September 21, 2023
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.