Consumer Alert: The Unfriendly holiday skies. How to easily find your airline’s cancellation policy

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The skies were not friendly to flyers trying to get to Grandma’s for Christmas. According to Flight Aware, more than 3100 flights were canceled yesterday.  But one airline led the pack, Southwest Airlines.  It had 1635 cancellations; that’s 51 percent of all U.S canceled flights.  I know this first-hand because my cousins who were flying in from Houston to see me were affected by all those cancellations.  And, as a consumer investigator, it got me thinking.  What are your rights when your flight is canceled or delayed?  My cousin’s tale provides some answers.

My cousin traveled with her niece, a funny 7-year-old with a bright smile.  And for her, this was more than a Christmas eve visit to Rochester; it was her first flight.  First stop, Baltimore

“We were supposed to have a three hour layover in Baltimore which I was dreading,” said Sharon Hughes, my cousin.  “I thought that was a long time with a 7-year-old.”

What she would soon learn is that her wait was about to get longer, much longer.

“We got off. We’re looking for the other gate, and on the way there I got a text saying my flight had been rescheduled,” said Hughes.

But she hadn’t been rescheduled for the next available flight.  Southwest had put her on a late evening flight scheduled to leave Baltimore on December 26th, the day after Christmas. And at every counter, the lines of grounded Southwest Airlines passengers faced the same plight. Finally, a gate agent had good news. She had gotten her on a flight.

“So that night it was supposed to leave at 9:30 and they were saying it was late.  And they kept bumping the time later and later. And it was 10:30 [pm], then it was 11:40 [pm], and then they canceled it,,” said Hughes.

That meant Hughes and her niece were stuck at the airport, and she wasn’t alone. As Santa made his trek across the globe, hundreds of hapless Southwest passengers would spend all night in the Southwest Airlines terminal at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. But, to her surprise, an agent said she wasn’t entitled to neither a food voucher nor hotel accommodations. 

In August, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he was cracking down on airlines and forced transparency by launching the Airline Customer Service Dashboard. There, you can easily review airline policy, and it clearly states Southwest is one of many airlines that provides meals and hotels when it cancels your flight. But here’s the rub.  It only commits to proving accommodations when the cancellations are controllable, like a mechanical or staffing problem.  But if the weather can be blamed, you could be out of luck.

“It’s a big loophole,” said Hughes.
Here’s the problem with that loophole.  Did the storm simply exacerbate other problems the airline was having?  Consider this: On Christmas Day, Southwest had four times the number of cancellations Delta had and canceled eight times the number of flights United canceled.  American only had 13 cancellations on Christmas Day. 

I reached out to Southwest for comment and airline spokesperson Chris Perry wrote, “While I don’t have figures from specific airports where we operate, we are still experiencing disruptions across our network as a result of Winter Storm Elliott’s lingering effects on the totality of our operation. With the weather now considerably more favorable, we continue work to stabilize and improve our operation. We are re-accommodating as many customers as possible, based on available space, whose itineraries have been disrupted. Those whose flights have been canceled may request a full refund or receive a flight credit, which does not expire.”

When asked specifically about why Southwest had so many more cancellations than competitors, Perry said he couldn’t confirm the numbers quoted by Flight Aware but acknowledged, “it’s a considerable portion of our published flight schedule. Our large, point-to-point network stands alone in the industry and we are working to unwind issues in connecting flight crews with aircraft.” The airline apologies to customers in a press release but does not explain why it was more profoundly affected by the storm than other airlines.

If you have a complaint about an airline, you can contact the U.S. Department of Transportation. Click here for the online complaint form.