Costly consequences of flight cancellations. How can the travel industry deal with them?

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I turned on the TV this morning to see how the Nation’s Capital is faring in the wake of a snowstorm. Moving around the city wasn’t my concern. I was more interested in how the airlines were handling the snow and ice storm that has moved from the south along the Atlantic coast and into New England. They handled it by, for the most part, canceling flights.

Thousands and thousands of flights have been canceled.

Once upon a time, that would be expected news and the end of the story. However, today, cancellations themselves are not the biggest problem, getting flights rescheduled and fighting airlines fees for flight changes and dealing with canceled non-refundable reservations at hotels and with other travel providers is becoming a burden.

In yesterday’s lead ConsumerTraveler.com column, travel agent Janice Hough noted that airlines expect our patience, but where is the reciprocity? Yesterday, I also spent time on the Senate side of The Hill, stopping in to chat with various staffers about airline issues. The subject of airline cancellations came up each time.

Last week, a Wall Street Journal article detailed problems of flight cancellations and unilateral airline schedule changes. And, earlier, the New York Times questioned airline punctuality.

It seems that concerns about massive cancellations and the lack of airline responsibility for the consequences of these cancellations and schedule changes are beginning to resonate in the halls of Congress — even with staffers of Senators who are not known for their focus on consumer-focused issues. It is about time.

The cancellation of flights because of storms is old news. Ever since the airlines developed the ability to communicate with passengers en masse via email and texting and since the perfecting of automatic rescheduling software, airlines have been being “proactive” when it comes to letting passengers know flights have been canceled and that they have been rescheduled.

Canceled and rescheduled passengers then have the choice of keeping the new flights assigned by the airline computers or calling a customer service representative to reschedule the freshly rescheduled flight. All this is good and helpful. However, the airlines have created an overloaded route system where weather glitches now take days to unwind. Plus, the draconian imposition of change fees and the possibility of additional charges for ongoing flights affected by weather delays need to be addressed.

For instance, being delayed because of weather is to be expected. But in the past, airline tickets would be rewritten, change fees would be forgiven, hotels would be rebooked, rental car reservations would be shifted and so on. Today, that kind of re-accommodation that was once the norm is no more.

If your flight was to connect between American Airlines with an ongoing flight on United or Delta, or internationally on a different airline alliance partner, the follow-on flights now face $200+ change fees and the difference in airfares. The former link among airlines for rescheduling passengers has been taken out of the system.

The domino-effect of these cancellations can cost a pretty penny.

Passengers flying on a single airline are still OK when it comes to having change fees forgiven, and they will make it to their final destination, albeit with a sometime very-significant delay. But, if the canceled flight affects passengers by causing them to miss or have to change a flight on another airline, change fees come back into effect. Plus, non-refundable hotel reservations will still be charged and who knows whether there will be space available for other nights.

It is time for the airlines to re-examine their cancellation policies and to find a way to coordinate across airlines so the overall airline system can accommodate the kinds of weather events and mass cancellations that the flying public has faced this winter.

These are events and cancellations that are made by the airlines. There should be some mechanism for airlines to verify among themselves (and with the larger travel industry) whether change fees should apply to follow-on flights and other reservations affected by storm cancellations. At least, facing disaster with one part of a traveler’s itinerary will not result in compounded change fees and rebooking penalties.

Losing time and having travels upended are problematic enough. Having to fork over unjustified and burdensome change fees and pay readjusted airfares is unfair. This is a problem that permeates the industry and one that the industry can solve without government intervention.

  • dcta

    Insurance.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    In your example of connections to international flights with nonrefundable (or past the cancellation window) hotels/rental cars/cruises/tours on the other end, my guess would be the majority of people have insurance for those kinds of trips. At least I would hope you would insure a trip costing several thousand dollars, unless you’re wealthy enough to where such a loss wouldn’t hurt. That should cover most of the fees and penalties in such a situation if you are delayed due to weather, plus the insurance company is now on the hook for getting you replacement flights as soon as possible, even on alternate airlines.

    My bigger issue is what to do with domestic flights that get canceled due to weather where the passenger can’t be rescheduled for days. It’s one thing if you get canceled before you ever leave home, but it’s quite another if you’re stuck at your destination, or worse, a connecting city. During the New Year’s winter storm, people were stranded for 5+ days in some cases, often with no compensation of any kind from the airlines because the cancellations were weather-related. Being stranded somewhere for that long at your own expense is not reasonable, if you ask me, and let’s face it, buying insurance on a $300 domestic flight isn’t something most people are going to do, or even reasonable to expect. I’m not a fan of government getting involved in things, but I think there does need to be some kind of regulation to govern situations where someone is stranded for more than 24 hours – at least to mandate the airlines provide food and water, for example.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Automatic rebooking rots……people are ending up with dates/ times/ even other airports (i.e., EWR instead of PHL) that they don’t want because some robot thinks it’s best. Reservations can be rebooked, all well and good, but if the ticket is not EXCHANGED properly “robotically”, the only recourse is to connect with a human by phone or at the airport.
    You can twitter and facebook all you want – what good does that do if the person answering the tweet or facebook remark can’t do a thing for you except respond with some lame sympathy or apology? These twittering facebook “responders” need to be on the telephone instead – answering calls from passengers.
    As well, bring back domestic call centers – people are sick of repetitive “non”-answers from outsourced third party vendors hard to understand and with a heavy lack of common sense or ability to connect to the problem from India or the Philippines (understanding geographical alternates or extreme weather ramifications).

    As far as change fees, this should never be done when it comes to weather delays or cancellations. I’m amazed at the number of “robotic” coworkers who are afraid to use common sense, reality and most of all empathy because they are “afraid” to break rules and waive things. Unfortunately, it appears it is built into the computer systems; this is somehow “Orwelian” to me.

  • BobChi

    You are absolutely right. My Delta flight was automatically rescheduled this week due to weather cancellations at the connecting city. I hurried out to the airport right away to see a human. He took about 3 minutes to get me rebooked onto American through an airport running normally. No fees, and I got home two hours sooner than on the original itinerary.

  • janice

    And then there’s the rebooking programs that rebook you after your return flight. Or 4 days away.

  • dcta

    Comprehensive insurance on a $300 flight is about $20, but just about anyone can insure flight only (as opposed to “comprehensive” coverage) for under $10. It might not be something you’d want to bother with for most short haul domestic flights but something to think about when planning to travel in winter storm or hurricane season.

    My AX card gives me flight insurance for about $6 and most Visa and Mastercards have this available as well. Of course t his won’t cover you for voluntary (not the airline’s) cancellation, and it won’t cover your hotel, etc. but it is at least one precaution you can take.

    Here’s a question – and I’m not taking the airlines’ side, it’s just a question – if the airport is shut down because of weather and the airport authority can’t get it up and going – the airlines are not allowed to fly – why should the airlines have to provide food and water? Are we just trying to get down to a point where we can assign some sort of responsibility to someone for the weather?

  • dcta

    if a flight is cancelled, there should never be a fee for re-book on that ticket. Further, if the consumer opts to not re-book, the ticket (even a non-refundable) is refundable.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    I get that, and yes, that wouldn’t be the fault of the airlines, but the general point was that I think there should be some kind of reasonable limit on what a passenger should be on the hook for in a problem not of the passenger’s doing. Yes, if the airport is shut down, the airline can’t do anything about that, but usually we’re dealing with 24 hours max in terms of a total closure, unless it’s something like a Katrina or Sandy. A lost day might be irritating, but isn’t going to kill most people. Yet the airline can then string you along for days, telling you no flights are available, and oh by the way, because it’s weather-related, you’re on your own. Add to that the fact that most insurance policies have a dollar limit on how much they’ll pay out for trip delay/cancellation, and this can become a serious problem for someone quickly. I just think a line needs to be drawn somewhere to help passengers in such a situation.

    (For the record, unless it’s for business and I have to be there, I try to avoid flying through the Midwest or Northeast during winter storm season just to avoid the potential for trouble – one less person the airlines will have to work to re-accommodate that way.)