The air traveler’s rights are at the same time numerous and obscure. We know we have some, we don’t know what they are, and even if we did, rare is the man with the strength to claim them to any fruitful end.
In the case of refunds for delays and cancellations, we know that the law is actually quite clear. Any delay over three hours, or cancellation due to reasons within the airline’s control, entitles you to a certain amount of cash back.
But there’s that curious question – why WAS your flight delayed? You were told it was weather, but someone else was told it was due to overbooking. “This is basically an honor system,” says Charlie Leocha, a passenger rights advocate who serves on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. “Passengers are told it’s weather and therefore the airline is not liable.” Leocha points out that a lack of passenger protections in the United States is what makes determining delay causes so critical here: “In Europe, it’s different. As long as the flight goes to Europe, from Europe or through Europe, you’re protected.”
There are four basic catogories for flight delays and cancellations:
- Air Carrier: The cause of the cancellation or delay was due to circumstances within the airline’s control (e.g. maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, fueling, etc.).
- Extreme Weather: Significant meteorological conditions (actual or forecasted) that, in the judgment of the carrier, delays or prevents the operation of a flight such as tornado, blizzard or hurricane.
- National Aviation System (NAS): Delays and cancellations attributable to the national aviation system that refer to a broad set of conditions, such as non-extreme weather conditions, airport operations, heavy traffic volume, and air traffic control.
- Late-arriving aircraft: A previous flight with same aircraft arrived late, causing the present flight to depart late.
- Security: Delays or cancellations caused by evacuation of a terminal or concourse, re-boarding of aircraft because of security breach, inoperative screening equipment and/or long lines in excess of 29 minutes at screening areas.
So who calls it? Who names the reason for the delay? Turns out it could be any number of airline employees from crew-members to operations staff and ground employees. If that seems a little casual, there’s always the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) that automatically transmits electronic data from the plane to the ground. Today many airlines use ACARS to record departure and arrival times as well. But of course, ACARS records an on-time “off the blocks” departure even if you just rolled a few feet and sat on the tarmac for another 5 hours.
We are not suggesting that there is a systemic effort to deceive travelers, but there is an opportunity for increased transparency when it comes to both why your flight was delayed and what you can do in the aftermath. Knowing why something is happening, and trusting that information goes a long way for soothing stressed traveler nerves. Of course, money back in your pocket does this too.