Stuck at the Airport

By | December 20, 2009

Northwest Airlines ticket counter.

Today, while we are stuck in our homes in the snow, our thoughts are with those stuck at the airports. In preparation for this storm, airlines around the Northeast United States preemptively cancelled flights, airports were closed for hours, and some people are being told it might be days before they get home. At least 800 flights were cancelled in the New York Area alone.

We don’t have the magic bullet that will solve all of these problems. One of the greatest features that airlines can invest in are tools to handle disruptions. Someone we know at Delta Air Lines mentioned they are have been developing a new tool that can automatically reprotect a planeful of passengers on new flights, rather than having each passenger reprotected individually.

After the JetBlue Valentine’s Day meltdown a few years back, JetBlue did the same. They added more flights that bypassed their New York hub. They developed new software tools. They even started looking to see if they could have extra flights they didn’t normally operate. Many airlines have now made it possible to change your flight without penalty on their website. Assuming you have a friend at home, or a mobile device, or such, you can avoid waiting in line, or waiting on hold on the phone.

First, you do want to try to rebook on their website. Whatever seats they have should be open to you. But, this doesn’t eliminate the expectation that a real human being might be able to do something a computer can’t. Second, you want to simply be there. If there is a seat on a plane, and you want to try to be on it, maybe you don’t want to leave the airport, much as you and the people involved want to.

You have to remember you have limited rights. The airline does not have an obligation to you to compensate you for the delay if it is due to weather. What there is no standard for is recovery. JetBlue came up with its Passenger Bill of Rights, which they toted as a response to their meltdown during a big storm, but even they only cover for a “Controllable Irregularity,” which they define as:  a delay, cancellation or diversion that is not caused by a Force Majeure Event. For the sake of clarity, if in a chain of multiple events, the original irregularity is due to a Force Majeure Event, the cause of the subsequent event(s) reasonably related to the original irregularity shall be deemed an Uncontrollable Irregularity.

Force Majeure, is defined by them as: “an event(s) outside of JetBlue’s reasonable control and includes, but is not limited to, weather conditions; acts of government or airport authorities (e.g., Air Traffic Control Delays, runway closures, airport construction); acts of God; U.S. military or airlift emergency or substantially expanded U.S. military airlift requirements, as determined by the U.S. government; grounding of a substantial number of aircraft as a result of activation of the U.S. Civil Reserve Air Fleet; strikes or labor unrest; civil commotions, embargoes, wars or other hostilities, whether actual, threatened or reported; government regulation, demand or requirement; damage to aircraft caused by a third-party; emergency situation requiring care, protection or response to protect person or property or any event that is not reasonably foreseen, predicted or anticipated by JetBlue.

Pretty much every airline has some lines like this. We use JetBlue’s version, again, because they’ve added a Bill of Rights to theirs, but excluded the events every airline tends to.

Every airline also has a statement like this: “Carrier will endeavor to carry passengers and their baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in schedules or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this Contract of Carriage. Carrier may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit intermediate stops shown on the reservation. All schedules are subject to change without notice…Except as may be provided in Section 37 below(Passenger Bill of Rights), Carrier shall have no other liability or responsibility to any Passenger as a result of a failure to operate any flight.

That is little comfort to those of you stuck at the airport. That the airline is not responsible. Airlines could add extra flights to ferry passengers. Few planes operate in the wee hours of the morning. If an airline wanted to call in some pilots, find a plane, and ferry passengers, they certainly could. It would be a tremendous gesture of goodwill over forcing people to wait days on their own dime to get home, especially since all these airlines have slashed capacity over the last year. But it does cost money, something businesses are often reluctant to do.

So, get creative. Ask the question: How can you get me home? If you are willing to pay, then check the trains, the buses, even rental cars. This is one of those times where the trip delay portion of a travel insurance policy may have been of use.

And, to cheer you up, we offer a moment from the classic 1987 John Hughes movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, as well as its trailer. Remember…DO NOT ACT like Steve Martin if you want to get home successfully this holiday season.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Airport Scene

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Trailer

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