United's "Bad Weather" Excuse Isn't Very Believable

Jonathan wants to know how long an airline can blame a cancellation on bad weather, and whether there’s any way to get such a claim rejected when it’s used inappropriately. Is it legitimate, for example, to say tomorrow’s flight is canceled due to weather, when what you really mean is an isolated thunderstorm the day before—which evidently affected no other airlines in the area—triggered a domino effect in getting a certain plane to the right airport a full day later?

The cancellation seems legit—the plane simply won’t be there when it’s scheduled—but because United is calling it weather-related, they don’t have to compensate Jonathan or find him a seat on another carrier.

I bought tickets on United for my friend to fly from Boston (BOS) to Chicago (ORD) leaving last Friday and returning today. On the way out she was delayed nearly four hours due to mechanical and paperwork problems. At this point I was already expecting some form of compensation as a loyal United customer for years.

Yesterday United calls to say her returning flight has been canceled. She was supposed to leave at 8am to get a half day of work in, but apparently the next available United flight leaves at 1pm. That won’t work, I explain, and ask for the ticket to be endorsed to another carrier that can meet our schedule. The customer service rep responds that the cancellation is weather-related and therefore not eligible for endorsement.

This sounded pretty fishy – a flight canceled a day in advance due to weather? I first check other United flights in the morning and hers is the only one canceled. How could that be if there’s bad weather? The rep explains the weather’s earlier in the morning; the plane couldn’t make it to Chicago for her flight. Same problem – only the one flight in from Boston was canceled. In addition, flights on other major carriers were all still scheduled. So at this point it’s not weather in the early morning either.

I finally get a supervisor who explains that the bad weather was yesterday night, and United canceled a flight to Boston which would have positioned the plane to head to Chicago early today and finally back to Boston for our flight. To verify this new story I checked the FAA’s airport status site, which said there were only delays of up to 45 minutes in Boston because of thunderstorms. And again, other United flights and carriers were making it into Boston, albeit with substantial delays. Doesn’t sound like a forced cancellation to me.

United’s claim to weather isn’t the usual and understandable problem, then – storms between the endpoints during the flight. Nor is it even weather for the flight inbound, which is a bit of a stretch for me; if the skies are clear I feel it’s up to the airline to find a plane. If other carriers can fly the route, it’s not weather. United’s claim is bad weather the day before that seems to have selectively impacted them. No way does weather – which may not even have been cancellation-worthy – the day before, two flights before, justify this cancellation. I’ve heard stories of airlines stretching what counts as a weather-related delay / cancellation before, but this is a whopper.

Jonathan asks, “How would you suggest approaching an airline in future when they claim weather is a factor when you feel it isn’t? How would you frame a request to United for compensation? And what compensation do you feel it would be appropriate to ask for?”

Jonathan, you might want to try calling the FAA’s hotline to ask them if there’s any sort of regulation about this. You should also escalate this up to the executive level and demand some clarification about United’s official “weather cancellation” policy. Finally, you may want to try contacting the travel writer/advocate Christopher Elliott at www.elliott.org—this is the kind of topic he might know more about, or he might be able to ask an airline representative on your behalf.

Readers, any suggestions? Do any of you know whether there’s a statute of limitations on blaming weather for canceled flights?

(Photo: Getty)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.