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


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 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.