Bad weather, bad business

Christopher Elliott

KAI RYSSDAL: Discount airline JetBlue is doing what it can to make amends today. If there's a way to make sitting on an airport tarmac for 11 hours less painful.

Some JetBlue passengers at New York's Kennedy Airport wound up doing just that yesterday. The big snow and ice storm that moved through the East Coast forced carriers to cancel hundreds of flights.

JetBlue is saying what happened to some of its passengers was unacceptable. It's going to offer free flights and refunds to soothe ruffled feathers. And CEO David Neeleman

said today it could cost the company millions of dollars. But commentator Christopher Elliott says unfortunately, JetBlue's the exception, not the rule.


CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT: You'd think that the airlines would be ticked off at Mother Nature right about now. All that bad weather. All those delays.

The exact opposite is probably true, though. They're relieved.

See, the airlines' legal agreement between them and you — it's called the contract of carriage — says if weather prevents or delays one of their flights, they're off the hook.

Airlines aren't required to offer passengers any of the compensation they would for a mechanical delay. Things like phone cards, meal vouchers or hotel rooms.

But I think airlines are too quick to play the weather card. For example, if fog keeps your plane from taking off or landing at an airport where you're making a connection, they consider that a weather delay, too.

I don't. I never asked to be routed through Dallas or Denver. It's the major airlines and their hub-and-spoke system that forces me to visit.

If my connecting flight is delayed — for whatever reason — I think the airline should assume some responsibility for its scheduling decision and lend a hand.

It's a contract loophole that a 747 could fly through, and I think it's time to close it. Airlines should take care of their passengers during these weather delays, just as they do when there's an operational snafu.

Now granted, that may seem bad for business, at least in the short term. But it's good and responsible customer service.

And in an industry where passengers draw little distinction between one carrier and the next, good customer service is what may set a profitable airline apart from a loser.

RYSSDAL: Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman at National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

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