Dispute An Airline's So-Called "Weather Delay"

Unless it’s due to the weather, if there’s a flight delay or cancellation, passengers are entitled to some kind of refund, unless of course it’s due to the weather, but are flight delays as due to the weather as often as airlines say they are? And how would you go about proving otherwise? Well, as a fascinating interview posted over at airline blog Elliot.org informs us, you could always hire the services of a forensic meteorologist.

As Elliot points out, there’s no formal audit of airline’s claims of delays due to weather. The Department of Transportation essential takes their word at face value.

A forensic meteorologist, on the other hand, is like a weather detective, piecing together Doppler images and technical charts to see what weather was happening where and when. Howie Altschule, a forensic meteorologist, says, “Airlines that falsely use bad weather as an excuse may be in for a rude awakening should someone decide to challenge them.”

You know how they say, “Everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it?” Well, now you can. If you really feel that an airline’s weather excuse is a lie to get out of paying you your due, consider hiring a forensic meteorologist and including his findings in your correspondence with the company. While it’s difficult to predict the weather, it’s relatively easy, for a trained specialist, to see what weather we’ve already had.

Forensic meteorologist: “I believe bad weather is being used as an excuse” [Elliot]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. Narb copied that floppy says:

    Quickly, to the class-action mobile!

    Nanananananana!

  2. Anonymous says:

    You might want to find fellow passengers and hire him. Something tells me hiring a forensic meteorologist is going to cost more than a handful of plane tickets. Which is exactly what the airlines are banking on.

  3. MYarms says:

    Something tells me it will cost you more to hire a “Forensic Meteorologist” than you stand to get back from the airline.

  4. @Guinness: But what exactly is a forensic meteorologist. I mean is there a qualification list? I’d certainly like the job. Just go check historical data from weatherchannel.com, and write up a report. Like those forensic mold specialists.

  5. dgcaste says:

    I wonder how often airlines abuse this.

  6. m4ximusprim3 says:

    @MYarms: Depends- if its a family of four flying nonstop to zanzibar and it was sunny outside, it might be a good investment.

    one way from LA to SAC? not so much.

  7. johnva says:

    What happens if the cause of a delay or cancellation contains elements of both weather AND things that I would say are the airlines fault? For example, a lot of delays seem to be caused by airports (like O’Hare) that are highly congested. If weather causes even a slight delay in say, the morning there, the schedule for the entire day can slip because the airlines have not scheduled any “slack time” that can absorb delays to the schedule earlier on. Can they then blame all the delays for the rest of the day on the morning weather, even though their own overscheduling was also a factor? I ask because this is precisely the excuse I’ve been given as to why a delay causing me to miss my connecting flight was not the fault of the airline.

  8. loganmo says:

    Once I had a flight from DCA to O’Hare, I believe, and was told that a flight was cancelled due to weather. So I pulled out my laptop, and checked out the weather…not a thing anywhere east of of the Ole’ Miss. So I called the gate agent on their lie and got a voucher for a free ticket.

  9. Anonymous says:

    @johnva: Good point.

  10. timmus says:

    It makes no sense at all to “check up” on an airline’s weather delay excuse, because the delay could have spread from some other airport that did have a weather delay. Also I doubt whether it makes sense to hire a forensic meteorologist for $2000 to fight a $500 ticket.

  11. bluebuilder says:

    I have seen weather in Chicago be used as an excuse for delays that interrupted my travel between Dallas and Orlando.

    It’s a system wide effect that I think you would need more than a meteorologist to help you solve, you would also need insight into the entire air traffic system. That’s a lot of investigation over a couple hundred bucks.

  12. Bay State Darren says:

    @GitEmSteveDave: Well, he’s probably an actual meteorologist, for starters.

  13. OPNLguy says:

    A post by Joe F. on the guy’s site says it better than I could….

    On January 15th, 2008 Joe F. said

    Speaking as a litigator – it is not as simple as Mr. Altschule makes
    it out to be. Look, I am NO fan of the airlines and their lame excuses
    but there is another side, and then another, and then another to this
    debate.

    He speaks out of both sides of the proverbial mouth – on one side is
    the distress over thunderstorms and flying too close to them and other
    summer weather woes, and then there is the ‘we can beat the storm into
    Albany’ claim. The gate agent has ZERO say in whether the flight is
    canceled – that goes to ops and the pilot.

    Here is one example -

    Delta operates flight 567 from CVG to BHM on Sunday night. There are
    thunderstorms over CVG which causes the fight to arrive late on Sunday.
    In order for the pilots to get the required rest period, the morning
    departure is delayed 2 hours. This AIRPLANE goes from BHM-CVG and then
    to Charleston, SC. After CHS, the aiplanes goes from
    CHS-CVG-ATL-DFW-ATL.

    What does Delta do? They cancel the flight segment from CVG-CHS-CVG
    to allow the airplane to get back on schedule in CVG by skipping the
    turnaround to CHS.

    Now, is that a weather-related cancellation for the people in CHS?
    Delta certainly can argue that. Other airlines have done that in the
    past. It probably happens every day at some place in the country.

    How contemporaneous does the weather need to be in order to be a weather delay.

    If the airline choses to cancel, in Mr. Altschule’s case, the
    MCO-ALB flight because of the impending weather, yet, there is no
    weather yet, is it a weather cancellation if infact, within an hour of
    arrival, it starts snowing heavily in ALB? What is the next flight out
    crashes due to snow on the wings? SHOULD the flight have been canceled
    then to prevent the crash? The crash lawyers are gonna argue that.

    What if, in Mr. Altschule’s case, the weather closed into ALB early,
    creating a serious risk at landing. The pilot then chooses to go to
    Hartford [BDL] for a safer landing. What is the airlines responsbility
    then? Does Mr. Altschule insist that they be bussed to ALB, despite the
    fact that the aircraft left MCO based on HIS request and ‘showing’ the
    gate agent that the snow would NOT be there before they got there?

    Here is another one – A CRJ sits on the runway for 3 hours because
    of thunderstorms enroute from BDL-Washington Dulles. ATC has all of the
    Instrument Flight Rules flights backed up for hours due to the weather
    closing the busy airport for 60 minutes. However, if the flight
    departed under VISUAL flight rules, they could leave right now, without
    the delay, fly in bright sun and no clouds, and land visually at IAD
    with no delay.

    The airlines internal rules mandate that ALL flights operate IFR,
    instead of VFR. It would be 100% legal for the flight to depart and
    arrive under VFR rules. Is that a weather delay? I would argue not – it
    is the choice the airline [and perhaps their insurer] to mandate IFR
    rules. This happened to me – and they paid me for a hotel room. Weather
    did not cause the delay, their choice of flight rules caused the delay.

    I’m the FIRST person to claim that there need to be some rules
    around this so that the airlines cannot use ‘weather’ as an excuse for
    everything. But at the same time, discretion to the pilots and
    dispatchers seems to indicate that there be some looseness to the rules
    for safety sake. I am not certain how to make the rules except on a
    case by case basis . . . .

  14. ideagirl says:

    @timmus: The airlines mu LOVE YOU…

  15. Jacquilynne says:

    In my totally unexpert opinion, ‘weather delay’ should have the very limited meaning of ‘the weather at the airport you’re at or the weather at the airport you’re going to or the weather you’d have to fly through to get between them’ is so bad that your flight, as scheduled, can not be made safely.

    I think ‘the plane that was supposed to fly this flight was delayed by weather in Phoenix and is thus not currently in LA to fly you to Seattle’ is not a weather delay, at least not for the LA to Seattle flight. That’s a scheduling delay — as in, they don’t have a plane in LA to fly this flight. Ooops!

  16. geofffox says:

    I will swap my services as a forensic meteorologist to anyone who can get my website (geofffox.com) relisted on Google – honest.

    Geoff Fox
    meteorologist

  17. AaronC says:

    @OPNLguy: Good points all around.

  18. johnva says:

    @Jacquilynne: I agree with you, but the airlines don’t seem to see it that way in my recent experience. They shouldn’t be asked to do things that are totally out of their control, but they also should design their schedules so that they can recover from the inevitable delays that occur in a more graceful fashion instead of having weather delays propagate throughout the national system.

  19. coren says:

    Unless it’s due to the weather, if there’s a flight delay or cancellation, passengers are entitled to some kind of refund, unless of course, but are flight delays as due to the weather as often as airlines say they are?

    Is it just me, or did there not need to be that second unless? (and for that matter, the of course following)

  20. jamesdenver says:

    Why not just check it on your iphone…

    [www.salon.com]

  21. TwoEightRight says:

    @OPNLguy: Joe F. certainly seems to know his stuff. Anybody who hasn’t yet, I’d recommend reading the rest of his comments on that page.

    Although, I’m not sure he’s right about an airliner being able to depart VFR in the situation he described. If the only reason the hypothetical VFR flight is delayed is because there’s 200 IFR flights in line ahead of them to use the runways at IAD, I don’t think changing flight rules will help. Changing to VFR won’t invalidate any spacing rules ATC may have to adhere to while you’re in their airspace, and won’t dissipate the wake turbulence that’s the reason for those spacing rules. ATC might not even let them into the Class B airspace around IAD in the first place if they’re too busy (which they probably would be, if things are that backed up and the weather’s okay now); VFR traffic tends to get lowest priority.

    Best case, I think, the CRJ would delay another plane’s takeoff or landing (and the plane after them, and the plane after them, and so on) by a minute or so. Worst case, the local NTSB office gets something to do. And ~50 people die. Most likely, they’d get halfway there and Approach or Tower tells them to come back later when they’ve got time to deal with VFR traffic, and they’re back to where they started, minus a few thousand dollars of fuel and operating costs and their spot in line.

    None of that’s strictly a “weather delay”, in my opinion. More of a “too many planes, not enough runways” delay. There’s just not enough excess capacity at the major airports to handle delays well.

  22. bhall03 says:

    @ Ben: Man, not sure if you were still asleep or if you need to go to sleep, but your opening sentence is a killer with multiple grammatical errors. I was reading it on my RSS and had to come to the website to see if it made any more sense here…nope.

  23. theDevilsDue says:

    @OPNLguy:Wow. Someone actually understands what goes on behind the scenes at an airport and how absolutely complicated it is.

  24. Trojan69 says:

    This is easy. If YOUR equipment (aka plane), was itself, delayed in its routing to your facility (aka airport) due to weather, it is a weather delay.

    However, if the equipment originally assigned to your facility is diverted by the airline to fill ANY other need, it is NOT weather and they should be made to pay.

    I have been on the wrong end of both situations and I always insist that the agent describe the circumstances. More often than not, it is a legit weather problem. Once in awhile, it is a deal where the airline is robbing Peter (me) to pay Paul. I get compensation for the latter. I don’t even ask for compensation for the former.

    Two things…always treat the agent as a professional with respect. Otherwise, you can forget compensation. Two, try like heck to fly out early in the day. Weather and facility problems are far, far, less frequent.

  25. dualityshift says:

    @dgcaste: If it was even 1% of all “weather related” delays were abuse, that would still mean a lot of money to be paid out.

  26. Gryphin says:

    First time posting, never felt a need to add to any of the comments that were already on a story, but for this one I registered.

    Joe F did point out some of the more unknown things that happen behind the scenes. Just because it is a sunny day at your airport, bad weather or even the chance of bad weather over the route to take, your destination, your alternate airport, (nobody thinks of what the weather could be at the alternate emergency diversion airports is likely to be, ala Mr. iPhone) can play a major part in the delays and planning of flights. High/Low pressure systems can cause severe wind shear with little or no notice at certain times. No cloud cover, sure, but the wind is a harsh thing at times, even at the “calmer” altitudes. Bad headwinds eats into your fuel, possibly cutting you too close to your emergency reserve for a divert should something be wrong at your destination, or should something mechanical happen in-flight. Commerical flight planning is all about eliminating that last 1% of chance for something to go wrong. They’ve already got the other 99% taken care of. They do not go “beating storms” into airports with major aircraft. It’s called “scud-running”, and is very much frowned upon in the professional flying circles. Especially with passengers involved.

    Also, in regards to the “it’s airline policy to only go IFR, and no VFR flights at all” comment. Class A airspace (the space that every commercial flight flies thru, and is controlled/monitored via central ATC, rather than local airport ATC) is strictly IFR, per FAA regs. If you can’t file an IFR flight plan, you don’t get to fly in Class A airspace. Not flying that high would just expose the aircraft to much more weather effects, making the problem worse, not to mention routing a commerical jet around all the little airports and city/military airspaces between point A and point B. There is no pilot decision to switch a flight to VFR just because IFR is grounded for a major airline flight. The mere idea of switching to VFR flight rules because IFR approaches are congested is laughable at best. VFR would require even more from ATC, and the really big, major airports, tend to shunt VFR off to the side until they get a slot open. They pretty much request that you fly only IFR into the airspace, to make it all go a whole lot easier. IIRC, DFW, LAX, LaGuardia, Seattle, O’Hare, Miami, are all strictly IFR. They have you slotted from at least 15 miles out, as far as when you are landing, which runway they are going to put you on, who they need to keep in the pattern to let craft off of the ground, etc.

    If the poster got a free voucher because of the VFR/IFR arguement, they gave it to him just because they knew it would be quicker and easier to just give the guy a free ticket than to try to get the info across to him. Once you have an annoyed/annoying guest at your ticket counter, you just do what you need to do to get him away. Maybe that’s the trick to it, rather than anything truly scientific.

    Just don’t think that pulling up weather.com and putting your destination in, and seeing that it’s 60 degrees and sunny the last time it was updated means diddly squat. Sorry for the ramble, just felt the need to share.