Home Hotel service New site aims to help travelers with flight delays or cancellations – but the devil is in the details

New site aims to help travelers with flight delays or cancellations – but the devil is in the details


At first glance, the recent announcement by the US Department of Transportation of a new online “dashboard” for air travelers seems to give passengers some hope. For the first time, consumers can easily consult their rights in the event of a flight delay or cancellation and compare the policies of 10 of the largest airlines in the United States

In theory, at least, it seems useful. Major airlines have agreed that when a delay or cancellation forces passengers to be stuck overnight in a city they don’t live in, and the problem is directly the fault of the airline – a crew member missing, a mechanical problem or a delayed inbound flight – they would provide a meal and hotel for the night. And if they can’t do it, they will offer compensation.

Major exception where airlines are off the hook: delays or cancellations due to weather, an event beyond their control.

But the devil is in the details – and in the fine print of each airline’s contract of carriage, as well as their published customer policies. A deeper dive into the language of each airline’s policy reveals that obtaining that hotel room or meal – or “compensation” if the room is not available – is not -be not so easy.

What is “reasonable” compensation?

Here are the challenges.

In many cases, the onus may be on you to first prove that the airline could, in fact, provide you with a hotel room. Sometimes the airline may not be able to provide enough rooms, and in this case the compensation they offer you may not even come close to paying for a hotel room that you find on your own.

It all comes down to what the airline considers “reasonable” compensation – and every airline is different. United could approve anything under $200. But Delta has a $100 limit and currently doesn’t give out cash, only vouchers for future flights. Other airlines, such as American, do not recognize a specific amount or limit.

Also, assuming a room is available, don’t expect a full service hotel or a hotel very close to the airport. More often than not, you’ll check into a budget hotel with no amenities where the airline has pre-negotiated a low-cost offer for a block of rooms.

Travelers look at a billboard showing canceled flights at Orlando International Airport
Travelers look at a billboard showing canceled and delayed flights at Orlando International Airport.

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Offering meal vouchers or a hotel room when the airline is at fault is nothing new. Airlines have been doing this for years, but on a case-by-case basis, and in many cases only for their most valuable frequent flyers. Until now, if you were flying in the back of the plane, there was no guarantee that the airline would take care of you.

Again, this is a definition of terms and how airlines interpret the words “controllable delays”.

And, just because individual carrier policies are now listed on the DOT Airlines Customer Service Dashboard, don’t expect airlines to voluntarily agree to your rights. You need to know them first, then proactively remind the airline if your flight is delayed or cancelled.

What about weather delays?

Then there’s the tricky and often misleading definition of the word “weather.” How many times have you gone to your departure airport, where the weather is nice, only to be told that your flight is delayed or canceled because of the weather? Then you call a friend at your destination and find that the weather is good there too.

So, is the airline lying to you?

More often than not, the airline is telling the truth, but they haven’t put the weather report into context. Airline meteorologists may see a storm front moving towards your destination airport closer to your arrival time, and they don’t want to release your flight because they’re worried you might have to divert to another airport.

Or the weather may already be where the aircraft assigned to your flight is departing. Another variable: connections and the weather at intermediate airports.

An important tactic – call the airline before going to the airport. Find out about the weather at three places. The weather forecast for your departure airport. The weather at your destination airport, for the approximate time of your arrival there. And if you are connecting with another flight, the weather at that airport.