Chris Elliott wrote a column this week about how most airlines have dropped their “flat tire” rule which basically allowed travelers to reschedule their flight for no cost for circumstances beyond their control. Well, as Chris also indicated — and one of my clients found out the same day — the airlines still have that rule. It just only applies to circumstances beyond their control.
The gentleman in question had a simple flight on US Airways from San Francisco to Barcelona, with about a two hour connection in Philadelphia. But after the door was closed, the pilot disclosed the first problem: clogged fuel lines that would result in the plane needing to stop in Pittsburgh to refuel because they couldn’t take on enough fuel to make it to Philadelphia.
Leaving aside the worry that it’s only 267 air miles from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and maybe that’s cutting it a little close if they have that little margin for error, my client was worried about his connection.
With the extra stop time, it looked like he would have about 30 minutes, which should have been enough, but I promised to monitor the flight. US Airways reservations agents indicated they would not hold the connection, and in fact had no idea why the plane was late. So I held a backup seat on a later flight to Frankfurt connecting to Lufthansa to Barcelona.
When the plane landed in Pittsburgh, I advised my client about the backup plan, and suggested he run when they landed. He agreed, but called me back a little later and said, the airline won’t give us details but the fueling is taking a while, they are going to be delayed, so we definitely won’t make it.
At this point he still had well over an hour before the second flight, but further ground delays meant when the plane took off, he would only have about 50 minutes on the ground.
But it got better. ATC (Air Traffic Control) delays meant the plane circled for a while, turning a 30 minute flight into a nearly two hour one. Thus the airline kept updating arrival times, and it finally pulled into the gate at 8:27 p.m. — seven minutes after the scheduled departure of the backup flight.
At this point, US Airways posted a 25 minute delay for the Frankfurt flight, so when I got the call from the plane, I advised again: “run.”
When passengers disembarked, however, one US Airways agent told my client that they thought the Barcelona plane was still there. (It wasn’t, the plane had left almost two hours earlier.) So he ran to the wrong gate, then had to turn around and run to the gate he should have gone to in the first place.
As it turned out, I had given US Airways the connecting flight information on Lufthansa, so they were able to reissue the ticket quickly, and he made the flight with five minutes to spare. Fortunately, the best available connection in Frankfurt had been three hours, so even with the delay he made his flight. And arrived in Barcelona “only” seven hours late.
But not everyone was so lucky, my client in fact told me that some fellow passengers he talked to on the plane in Pittsburgh had been told they would have to either overnight in Philadelphia, or stand by on a late flight to London.
So here’s the total of “circumstances beyond their control”: clogged fuel lines to require the extra stop, not informing the crew about the problem until it was not possible for passengers to get off the plane, delays in fueling on the ground (perhaps because it was an unscheduled stop), air traffic delays, and misinformation at the airport.
And hey, it happens, all of these things are either the result of bad luck or simple human error. But US Airways offered nothing by way of compensation to passengers, and in fact, did not even rebook anyone proactively who missed their connection unless that passenger called their travel agent or the airline directly.
But had some of these passengers been low on fuel in their car, had a delay at a gas station, gotten stuck in traffic, or been given the wrong directions, well, those passengers would have probably had to pay a hefty fee either to fly out later and connect to another airline, or to change their reservation to the following day.
US Airways expected their passengers to be understanding and cut them some slack. It would be nice if airline policy was to return the favor.