US Airlines Commit To Pay Hotel & Meals During Controllable Delays

Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been jawboning U.S. airlines to do better for customers. But his complaint is that their operations have been worse than before the pandemic – implicitly accepting that the way things used to be in 2019 were good enough.

One of his specific asks is that airlines take care of customers during controllable delays like lack of crew or mechanical problems.

  • For the most part they already do this
  • He’s their regulator, wielding broad power – and said if airlines didn’t do this on their own he’d push forward regulation (which would likely have required more than airlines will do on their own)
  • The federal government shoveled 10- and 11-figure subsidies to airlines during the pandemic
  • And they want more (capital investment in airports and air traffic control, subsidies for new sources of aviation fuel)

Buttigieg had written airline chief executives asking them “at a minimum” to provide meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more and lodging for those who must wait overnight because of disruptions within the carrier’s control.

So naturally they’ve agreed. And by the way this even includes Frontier Airlines.

Generally speaking airlines were already on the hook for lodging and meals during controllable delays, however they’ve made explicit commitments here that include reimbursement when they can’t provide a hotel and specific amounts for meals.

American Airlines revised its customer service plan to say they’d reimburse reasonable hotel costs if the airline couldn’t provide one. That’s in stark contrast to a blanket policy explained a year ago that they would not reimburse hotel expenses unless legally required to do so.

United will reimburse up to $200 for hotel when they can’t provide one, though you can argue for a higher amount if you can demonstrate that it’s reasonable under the circumstances.

Delta, by contrast, will only give you a travel voucher worth up to $100 if they cannot find you a hotel.

Meal and transportation policies are similarly updated. Generally meal costs of some kind will be covered on delays of 3 hours or more, with $12 being a common amount. Another major change here is that these vouchers represent a blast from the past, scrip to spend at the airport, and may limit use of American Airlines “refresh and refuel” carts containing sandwiches, snack boxes, bottles of water and similar.

Snack boxes cost the airline as little as $1.47 apiece. It’s a move that US Airways management made 8 years ago after taking over the airline. Long delays will now be more costly, which serves as a greater incentive to avoid long delays though also means a higher cost to provide transportation which gets factored into whether or not scheduling a flight makes sense.

Let’s not oversell this.

  • When delays and cancellations are outside of the control of the airline – such as weather and air traffic control delays – carriers aren’t obligated to provide rooms or meals.

  • At the end of the day this is mostly saying they are going to do what they already do, but there is some consumer benefit at the margin to explicitly committing to reimbursement and to (in some cases) dollar amounts for meals based on an explicit threshold for delays.

  • We’re going to have to wait to see how airlines handle these requests in practice, and what hoops customers will have to jump through to demonstrate that an airline was unable to provide accommodations when required in order to obtain a refund.

Almost no politician ever loses complaining about airlines, and Buttigieg can say he got something for consumers even if the actual benefit will be at the margin.

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. “Secretary For Being On TV Pete Buttigieg, nominally in charge of the Department of Transportation but really preparing for broader political aspirations”. Please cite where you got your information that he is preparing for broader political aspirations. Cite an actual source, not a Foxnews panelist. Don’t cite someone’s guess. You present your statement as a fact, so you must have a FACT to back it up.

    Oh, you can’t? So, you are just spewing more right wing drivel? What a shocker!

  2. You really seem to hate Secretary Buttigieg. IMO, airlines either need to be fully de-regulated
    (so that I can sue them, for example), or we all need a strong and combative Secretary of Transportation to regulate them. I don’t seem to remember you ranting about Secretary Chao who was IMO, one of the weakest SoT recently.

  3. Gary you really need to check yourself on this. You go through a post of positive consumer benefit from the airlines essentially instituted by DOT then bash its leader. And the cumulation of posts about him certainly has a ting of, let’s say, trolling to it. Taken together, it’s clear what you’re on about.

  4. Gary, all politicians are constantly trying to further their careers.

    Why call out Buttigieg specifically when he did something positive (albeit very small) to hold the airlines accountable for squandering all the money the taxpayers provided to keep operations running and employees on the payroll?

    He is very media savvy, for sure, but I don’t see that as a crime.

  5. @Daniel – This is pretty weak sauce. I think I’m clear in the post, it’s mostly show but there’s a non-zero benefit. He’s claimed to hold airlines accountable for their performance *but only compared to pre-pandemic levels* accepting those as good enough.

    Overall he’s self-congratulatory, with a larger media presence than his understanding of the issues or his accomplishments warrant. He’s bad on supply of pilots (1500 hour rule and retirement age), he’s bad on the poorest Americans having access to the same cost of goods as the majority of the country (Jones Act) which is to say he kowtows to unions at the expense of the population at large.

  6. @brett – i was certainly critical of secretary chao when warranted and I have argued quite explicitly (consistently for at least 8 years) that airlines shouldn’t be exempt from suits stemming from common law contract principles.

  7. @Gary – A self-congratulatory politician? Well, you could knock me over with a feather.

    He ran for president. Obviously he has aspirations for high office.

  8. @Daniel tell that to @Jerry above.

    My beef is simply that there’s a lot less here than you’re going to be hearing, and there’ll be a whole lot of unwarranted victory laps.

    It’s interesting that most of the reaction here is to one sentence I wrote 🙂 It’s possible I was a bit ornery when I wrote it.

  9. Airlines need some serious CRM work towards their own failures
    I’m not hopeful they are going to clean up their act as they always seem to blame weather and breathing as out of their control no matter what issue occurs
    Transparency is not something airlines seem to be familiar with or honesty
    Need 1000 examples or more ?

  10. @Gary – Have to agree with others on this one, your criticism of Pete is not warranted by what you’ve laid out in the article. It’s been hinted at in your other articles on him, but for this one, you really have nothing to critique him on, which reveals your anti-Pete bias. You just seem to resent that he’s leveraging this for future aspirations.

    Is it really bad that he’s the “Secretary for Being on TV” if that leads to better consumer outcomes, as in this case? Call him out where he deserves it, Gary, but give him credit where it’s due.

  11. Gary, you are a good travel writer so why do you have to bring your right-wing political opinions into an otherwise stellar post? Did former Secretary Elaine Chow do anything of anybody but her family? I am a travel blogger and I never insert politics into my posts. You have read some of my posts, thanks for reading.

  12. @Steve there is nothing right wing here if anything I am saying that Buttigieg should be doing more not less [criticize me for being too left wing then?]

    I HAVE UPDATED THE FIRST SENTENCE OF THIS POST because it was clearly distracting rather than helping to make my point.

  13. It continues to amaze me how many people expect an airline to provide food and a hotel even when it isn’t due to an airline’s specific issues. Air traffic control and weather cause the vast majority of delays and cancellations and I’m sure we will continue to hear how “unfair” it is to make people sleep in the airport, etc.

    Personally I NEVER expect an airline to take care of me. If I’m delayed or have to spend the night on the road due to a cancellation I buy my own food and also get my own hotel room. Are people so cheap they are going to suffer to make a point? Seriously?! SMH

  14. AC above me is such a good Stockholm Syndrome little boy. You ask him for one of his testicles and he will give you both!

    To the passenger it don’t f*cking matter if the delay is weather or mechanical or a whim of some employee who farted on the boarding pass scanner. A delay is a delay and it is humane and just to compensate passengers with comfortable food and lodging as European carriers are forced to.

    $100 for a hotel night was reasonable 50 years ago. Airport hotels are easily $300-400 a night now on the low end. Don’t forget the cash tip the stupid shuttle driver will expect. As to food? $12, are you kidding me. That might get you the chef’s fart in a bottle. Basic sustenance at airports is now $24 for a very low end cold sandwich. A proper meal is $60-100.

  15. “Overall he’s self-congratulatory, with a larger media presence than his understanding of the issues or his accomplishments warrant. ”

    Pot? Kettle?

  16. @Kebum Lee – first of all yes a delay is a delay but airlines have not been liable for providing additional services for delays or cancellations outside of their reasonable control for many years. People just need to understand and accept that fact. Expecting a company (who’s mission is to make a profit) to voluntarily provide things that they aren’t obligated to and that aren’t common among their competitors is unrealistic. You can wish, say it isn’t “fair” and that things should change but they won’t (even the government isn’t pushing for this and BTW European carriers largely get a pass for things outside their reasonable control as well).

    Personally, I never understood the mind set of standing in line and begging for $10-$15 in food vouchers or waiting for the airline to take you to a hotel (which in most cases is a place you would NEVER stay on your own). It isn’t a big deal to spend money on food and pay for a night in a hotel. If that is a deal breaker for you or anyone else maybe you shouldn’t fly because, you know, S**t happens! Deal with it.

  17. This still needs to be a full fledged US DOT rule, not just nebulous commitments made a few of the hundreds of airlines that fly within, to, and from the US. What about foreign airlines, for example? DOT needs to finalize other consumer protection rules as well, such as requiring the refund of baggage fees for delayed luggage for instance–a rule that’s been pending since July 2021. EU261-like policies would be great for consumers.

  18. I feel you need to have a login system that measures commentor’s IQs. I’m shock how stupid most people that comment on this blog are. Racist or partisan I get….stupid just bugs me.

  19. I still don’t expect much from the airlines as there really isn’t anything forcing their hand.

    Delta is pretty famous for having a storm roll through ATL and then stranding passengers 3 days later due to “weather”. I have always felt it is a bit too easy for an airline to delay or cancel and not disclose the actual reason. The only time they are on the hook, really, is when a plane breaks with people on it.

    I appreciate the guy is making a fuss about it but it really is more show than go.

  20. The problem with these kinds of “initiatives” is that they are good PR for the industry and government, but there are too many individual situations and ways around them in practice. I never will wait for an airline to provide me with anything other than transportation. Life is simply too short.

    Case in point: I flew AA COS-DFW-DTW earlier this month. The COS-DFW leg had a mechanical (we went back to the gate after taxiing — issue with pressurization). AA could not get me to DTW within the following 24 hours, as the connection in DFW was irretrievably broken, and there was no space for me on an onward flight (DFW-DTW) until about 36 hours later. At gate, agent offered me DEN-PHL-DTW that would get me in 12 hours late. I was on my own for the transportation COS-DEN ($106 by Lyft) and my meals. Meal accommodation was refused by the AA personnel. Of course, I took it.

    BTW, the PHL-DTW segment had its own mechanical, resulting in an additional 6 hour delay. Again, meal accommodation, even for breakfast, was refused by the AA supervisor.

    And I do not see how I could get trip delay reimbursement from my credit card, as I paid for the ticket using an AA e-credit from a previous flight I had to cancel due to a death in the family.

    I’m not sure any of this would change under the new regime. And the “commitments” of the airlines are worthless.

    Just for grins and giggles, I did ask for a reimbursement from AA for the cost of the Lyft. I suspect my estate and my children can continue to wait for an answer from AA after I am gone.

    At least I got to where I was going. Everything else is secondary. As they say in the legal business: De minimus non curat lex — the law does not deal in trifles.

  21. At least Pete can rightfully call himself a “Thought Leader.” Like, ya know, he is actually doing something?

  22. @Jerry

    only reasons he’s head of the DoT is because he’s gay. His entire personality is his sexuality. If he was straight he would still be a bad mayor of a dying midwestern town.

  23. Like everything else, no matter what they do, somebody isn’t going to like it. The airline industry took billions in taxpayer dollars and its operations are worse than ever. Cancellations and delays are the new normal. And you’re lucky if they can get you out on another flight because they’re packing them in like sardines. I have an idea. For those that don’t like it, the next time your flight falls under a controllable delay, turn down any offer of food or hotel.

  24. Nothing useful here – all covered by credit card travel insurance. Plus most of us value our time too much to stand in an hour long line for a hotel voucher at some crappo hotel.

    If Mayor Pete wants to do something useful he would mandate minimum standards for legroom and better comp for flight delays.

  25. Consumers will still be reliant on airline to be honest about cause of the delay. I’ve seen airline personally flat out lie about the cause of the delay or act as if they weren’t aware of the actual reason. They’re trained to blame weather, acts of God etc. I was told that by a gate agent when crew unceremoniously walked off the plane TELLING business class passengers the flight crew timed out that it was weather related

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