U.S. Airlines Fail Passengers During Bad Weather. How To Take Matters Into Your Own Hands.

There were over 1,350 flight cancellations in the U.S. on Saturday, led by regional carrier Republic which flies for the three largest airlines which saw 35% of flights cancel. When bad weather hits, it’s larger planes carrying more people that are usually given priority. Behind Republic were – in order – United, American, and Delta, together taking the four top spots for cancellations in the world.

By 6 a.m. eastern time on Sunday over 130 United Airlines flights had already been cancelled. That’s a combination of continued challenging conditions but also challenges recovering from disruptions. Planes are out of position. Employees are in the wrong cities, and those who made it to their destinations may have done so quite late and must receive legally-mandated minimum rest.

Bad weather is going to limit air travel. Thunderstorms can be a problem, and so can extremely high winds. But air traffic control matters, too. Systemwide throughput gets limited, and that’s the fault of our failure to modernize – a failure that no one in government takes responsibility for, and that airlines just argue needs more taxpayer subsidies into the same structure.

Compounding the inconveniences of flight delays and cancellations is that airlines are totally unprepared to handle customers when their operations face challenges. They treat weather as a customer service get out of jail free card. Since they are considered to ‘owe customers nothing’ as weather isn’t their fault, that really shows in how customers are treated. It isn’t just that airlines aren’t going to provide overnight lodging in most cases to displaced passengers, or provide meals, they don’t do nearly enough to get passengers rebooked quickly either.

Here’s the scene from United Airlines in Houston:

Here’s United at Chicago O’Hare.

And here’s United telling customers that even though they aren’t going to fly on Saturday, they can’t have their checked luggage bag, even when it’s mere feet away. They aren’t staffing to handle it, and can’t be bothered.

Airlines don’t staff for significant delays and cancellations, and employees that are grounded due to weather aren’t cross-trained and required to help out. In a rational world flight attendants and pilots who aren’t able to fly would be helping passengers get rebooked – they’re still employees and should be considered “on the clock” – but Sara Nelson would never.

While United cancelled more flights on Saturday than American or Delta, it wasn’t just United:

And one from American Airlines:

Don’t check anything in your luggage that you cannot do without. Carry on anything you’ll need if you’re forced to overnight somewhere.

I frequently suggest trying to call instead of standing in line, but phone lines will get backed up. Delta has a day of travel line with the phone number on signs at the airport. American Airlines still has foreign call center lines that speak English. Those lines don’t generally back up when there’s bad weather in the U.S. So try U.K. or Australia reservations.

You can try twitter direct message, American is the best at rebookings this way, but during major meltdowns they’ll get overloaded and become less responsive. But they do usually offer telephone callbacks (this can become overwhelmed), too.

If I think I can get where I’m going successfully, I will take an all of the above approach.

  • Stand in line, if there’s no club where I can get assistance (if you have airline club lounge access, it’s usually better to get assistance there than main customer service)
  • While sitting on hold with the airline’s telephone reservations
  • And direct messaging what I want on twitter
  • And knowing what I want because I’ve searched flights, with availability – you can see this just by searching for what tickets an airline will sell to you. And availability changes constantly, as people rebook their own flights and also cancel travel plans. So I keep busy in line refreshing availability.

But unless it’s worth killing hours in the airport on the chance of making it where I’m going same day (a high bar – the cost of delaying the trip have to be huge) I will throw in the towel. During weather events the airline isn’t going to give me a free hotel room anyway, but even if they would it’s probably not a room I’d want to sleep in. I far prefer in this circumstance to book a room myself.

  • Many rewards cards, especially those from Chase but also Amex Platinum and once again even the premium Citi American AAdvantage Executive card, come with trip delay coverage that may pay for a hotel room, meals and ground transportation during overnight delays.

  • Regardless, it’s a great reason to have hotel points as a backup.

It’s far more comfortable to go get a room somewhere, maybe go have a meal, rather than standing around in airports. There’s an extent to which that’s a position of privilege but my point is to make it less so by minimizing cost.

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. ExpertFlyer is an invaluable during irrops for searching real time availability across airlines- for people who fly regularly, totally worth the $5 a month

  2. We need distributed ATC technology, which is in the works, but getting it scaled up is proving difficult.

    (This means that planes talk to each other, which lowers the burden on human controllers, mitigating shortages and freeing them up to deal with less routine stuff).

    There’s nothing we can do about the weather, but we COULD make operations smoother so the post-weather disruption is reduced.

  3. Being a victim of this as I write with Delta. I was supposed to be in Buenos Aires by Sat 9. A delayed connection in Houston brought me to fly next day and to this issue you mention now since the plane that should have gone to Buenos Aires was delayed in JFK. After going from a 10pm to 12:30am to 2am departure, we were given hotel vouchers. Now we are from 8am to 10 to 10:18am, just hoping to arrive luckily by today

  4. Just like there’s two types of luggage, carry on and lost, there’s two types of flights, non-stop and delayed. This is the reason I have multiple low level status among several carriers. I will fly whoever is direct knowing I’ve got a place to stay on either end. Cost me more most of the time but minimizes the dumpster fire that is air travel in the U.S.

  5. Sometimes you can’t get there from here (DC to St Louis comes to mind), or the only direct flight is 6am on Southwest… (I ain’t flying them until they go two years without a computer crash).

    But I got roundly criticized for traveling to Anaheim via LAX (lousy airport, long ground commute) not the much more convenient SNA…but there ain’t no direct flights from DC to Orange County and there are plenty from DC to LAX).

    Again, sometimes you genuinely can’t get there from here, but yeah. Always fly nonstop if it’s available.

  6. The US simply needs to properly staff its ATC facilities based on the level of demand it knows to expect.

    US airline on-time has been very good for multiple days this month.

    As soon as weather moved into the NE, ATC started handing out massive ATC delays – far larger than what has been done in the past for the same level of weather activity, and flights get cancelled.

    It is obvious the problem is the amount of flights airlines can operate when ATC delays are imposed.

    Airlines cannot carry 50% of the passengers from one region one day and twice that amount the next without major operational problems.

  7. “And knowing what I want because I’ve searched flights, with availability – you can see this just by searching for what tickets an airline will sell to you.”

    Not always so. I had Southwest cancel the second leg of a connecting itinerary. There was an alternate flight that looked good, seats were for sale, but Southwest refused to transfer me to that flight they were still selling. Why? That flight was overbooked, and they would not transfer passengers to an overbooked flight from a cancelled flight or missed connection.

  8. Every year the FAA petitions Congress for budget increases to hire more air traffic controllers and upgrade systems. These requests are usually denied. So next time you hear a politician talk about small government or no tax increases, remember the FAA.

  9. @Sal – the issue isn’t just funding for the FAA. They need better differential pay rates for different markets, which is one of the reasons NYC is so understaffed. It also can take ages to transfer. And the FAA has largely walked away from technology solutions like remote towers. They could handle air traffic in a location-independent manner but do not.

  10. “remote towers” was an experiment to bring local control to fields current WITHOUT A TOWER, serving GA and the tiniest amount of airline service (if any). It would not have impacted airline traffic in any manner…

  11. Thankfully it was Denver weather and not northeast weather, but when I had a United flight canceled this summer I was able to get rebooked on the app within minutes of the flight being canceled. I was also lucky that I was on the ground not in the air.

    And it’s hard to blame airlines for this because the alternative is more expensive flights, but when most flights are totally sold out, or especially overbooked, it takes a while to get everybody rebooked.

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