Air Travel Alert: Summer Weather Delays, Strike Cancelations and 3-Hour Rule Problems

Last month, I was supposed to fly from Houston to Dallas. I ended up driving between those cities instead, because American Airlines canceled my flight. Blame it on those terrible storms in Dallas.

The Good/Bad 3 Hour Rule

I suppose you could also blame it partly on the Dept. of Transportation’s new three hour rule for airlines that went into effect April 29 – which says that airlines cannot keep passengers in planes on the tarmac for more than three hours – they have to let them back into the airport. Otherwise, they’ll be fined to the tune of $27,500 per passenger.

Airlines say, “Cancel the Flight”

As I told one reporter earlier this week, there’s no doubt that airlines are doing preemptive cancellations to meet the DOT’s three hour rule guidelines. They have to. They’re not going to be hit with multi-million dollar fines per plane. Won’t happen.

But perhaps you’re thinking, big deal – we’re coming up on summertime – and these terrible delays only happen in the winter, right?

Trapped on the Tarmac in 2007

Maybe you’re remembering that horrendous Valentine’s Day weekend of three years ago, when icy weather grounded planes at JFK but JetBlue nevertheless kept hundreds of passengers in planes on the tarmac for as long as eight, nine and even ten hours. Eventually, JetBlue admitted this was “a debacle” (though to its credit, the airline soon rebounded to the extent that JetBlue is again a huge favorite with fliers).

Again, that was a winter weather incident – and bad weather is the overwhelming factor in such situations, responsible for 70% of all airline delays. But did you know summer weather can be just as bad – or worse?

Summer Weather: Worse than Winter

This is from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) website:

“The situation is worse during the summer: unlike winter storms, which take time to develop and move slowly, summer storms can form quickly, stretch for hundreds of miles and travel rapidly over large portions of the country, grounding flights and sending chain reaction delays throughout the nation’s airspace system.” FAA fact sheet

Watch for big storms to start rolling in any time, the kind that last for two or three hours (something you see a lot of in the Dallas area). And watch for preemptive cancelations by the airlines. The real challenge, unfortunately, will be where to put all the people displaced by the canceled flights – because airlines have been cutting capacity.

Some airlines have been blaming the FAA for this dilemma – but the feds are having none of this, saying, “Don’t scapegoat us.” The Associated Press reports that FAA head Randy Babbitt blames airlines for “cramming too many flights into the peak morning and afternoon schedules” and he cited frequent backups at Atlanta, Chicago’s O’Hare and San Francisco to underscore his point.

Airline Strikes

Spirit Airlines announced a tentative agreement had been reached with its striking pilots, and after days of “all flights canceled” the airline says it will resume service on June 18.

If your Spirit flight was affected, you can opt for a voucher or a refund – we have all of the airline’s “canceled flight” options laid out for you, including the numbers to call.

What to Do When Flight is Canceled

Okay, so what does this mean for you – the average passenger – who is just trying to get to where he’s going?

If your flight is canceled, being first in line to get the next available seat on an airplane is key. My advice:

  • If your flight is canceled or even delayed, contact your airline immediately
  • If you’re at the airport, get in line for a gate agent and get on the phone to the airline
  • If you’re heading to the airport, bring food and water and something to read or do – you could be there for awhile
  • Follow airline updates on your carrier’s website and Twitter
  • Treat airline personnel respectfully – chances are, the more courteous you are, the more help you’ll receive

And keep an eye on the weather reports – even in summer. Especially in summer.

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Published: May 25, 2010