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What are my rights when air-traffic control or other delays that are “out of the airline’s control” affect my travel plans?

Dear Anita,

I recently took a trip out to Los Angeles over the holidays. I probably put together the worst itinerary possible. I booked my airline tickets through United (even after I knew that there was a threat of a strike). I flew during peak times over the holiday season and late in the day. I had a connection at O’Hare in Chicago (one of the world’s busiest airports with a terrible on-time record) during the dead of winter. And the time between connections was only about 45 minutes.

So let me just say for the record that I know I did just about everything you’re told not to do when planning your itinerary (except for the fact that I was smart enough to buy paper tickets, even though I had the choice to buy electronic tickets).

Having said that all of that, it turns out that the only problem with my trip was caused by a delay in Providence, RI (my departure city), and had nothing to do with United’s possible strike, O’Hare, or bad weather. The plane was late getting into the gate in Providence, causing me to miss my connection in O’Hare (of course, with my luck, the plane left Chicago on time!). There were no other flights out to Los Angeles that day, so I was stuck in Chicago for the night. I mentioned rule 240 to an airline official and asked that the airline put me up in a hotel for the night. The official told me that the flight was delayed in Providence because of air-traffic control delays that were out of United’s control and that they would not pay for the hotel room (they did give me a voucher for a discount, however).

While I understand that it was not solely United’s fault that the flight was delayed in Providence, I believe that they should be held accountable. I had to pay for a hotel room in Chicago because United could not get me to Los Angeles in a reasonable amount of time. United scheduled a connection that was so tight that ANY delay would cause me to miss my flight in Chicago. If United is going to book a trip for me with a really tight connection, then I feel it is their responsibility to hold the plane in Chicago or pay for my hotel room. Furthermore, I believe that someone should be held accountable for the air-traffic control delay—and not me!

What are my rights here? Is anything being done to make someone accountable for air-traffic control delays and other delays that are “out of the airline’s control”?

Thanks in advance,
Nick O.
Boston, MA

Dear Nick O.,

Unfortunately, the airline does not have any control over air traffic control delays. An air traffic control delay is categorized as a “force majeure event,” and thus, is not covered under Rule 240. A force majeure event is any condition beyond the airline’s control, including weather, “acts of God,” riots, air traffic control problems, civil commotion, embargoes, wars, hostilities, disturbances, unsettled international conditions, and any strike, work stoppage, slowdown, lockout, or any other labor-related dispute involving or affecting the airline’s service, etc. If your flight is affected by a force majeure event, the airline’s only obligation is to refund you the price of your ticket, depending on its individual policy and agreements with other carriers.

According to United Airlines Contract of Carriage Reference Guide (page 28-29 Section I.), “United may, in the event of a force majeure event without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight…”

Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of the airline because there are no federal requirements governing how an airline handles delayed passengers. As far as connecting time, airlines are allowed to schedule connections as short as 30 minutes. I agree, 45 minutes in any big hub like O’Hare is not enough, especially in the winter and summer months when severe weather can impact airline schedules. My best suggestion to anyone connecting at large hubs such as O’Hare is to opt for an hour or more to allow for possible delays.

The answer to your final question, “Is anything being done to make someone accountable for air-traffic control delays and other delays that are ‘out of the airline’s control’?” is NO.

It’s become a heated debate between airlines and air traffic controllers. However, airlines are pointing more of the blame at the air traffic control network, claiming delays cost them and their passengers billions of dollars. On the other hand, air traffic controllers counter that the airlines’ unrealistic and inefficient scheduling are the major source of delays. At peak times, dozens of planes are simultaneously taxiing for take off or queuing to land in a limited amount of airspace at many airports. Even in good weather, delays will occur.

On top of all that, FAA statistics show that air traffic has increased by 27 percent during the past five years to 655 million commercial passengers annually. The number is expected to grow to more than 1 billion annually by 2010. The bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of delays are caused by the combination of bad weather and antiquated air traffic control systems that are incapable of moving airline passengers through the sky in a timely and efficient manner. So, it’s not so much that nothing is being done about it; it’s that the situation is not going to improve until a modern system is in place that can meet the demand of the traveling public.

I hope I've been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

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