Canceled flights can leave you low and dry

SUNDAY, FEB. 15, 2009

The numbers are in: December was ugly for air travelers, as anyone who flew over the snow-ridden holidays knows.

Weather-related cancellations put Seattle-based Horizon Air among five U.S. airlines with the worst on-time records, according to Portland-based FlightStats.

For all of 2008, Horizon was among the top five overall, but in December it managed to get just 54 percent of its flights to their destinations on time, according to FlightStats’ data.

Its sister airline, Alaska Airlines, fared slightly better at 58 percent.

Horizon and Alaska, which account for nearly half of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s passenger traffic, canceled dozens of flights, then shut down completely the Sunday before Christmas, the result of weather-related problems, including a shortage of de-icing fluid.

Stranded passengers huddled under blankets at the airport wondered why the airline didn’t provide hotel or meal vouchers.

While Alaska and other airlines sometimes do provide such vouchers, all bets are off when it comes to delays or cancellations due to weather and a litany of other problems – strikes, labor dispute, riots, fuel shortages, air traffic control – that are considered beyond their control.

“If it’s not something we’ve done to prevent travel, we can’t provide certain things we would provide if it was a delay due to a mechanical problem that we caused,” says Alaska’s Marianne Lindsey.

That’s the case with every major airline. Beyond that, however, policies vary.

Some things to know the next time you fly:

•Federal law does not require airlines to compensate passengers for inconveniences when flights are delayed or canceled for any reason.

Most airlines offer refunds or rebooking without penalties for canceled flights, but the law requires extra compensation only when passengers are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold. Everything else is voluntary.

•Information on the airlines’ policies is not always easy to find. It might show up in customer-service plans posted on their Web sites, or in an obtuse online legal document called the “Contract of Carriage.”

For a list of links to airlines’ contracts of carriage, go to www.airfarewatchdog.comand click on “user’s guide.”

When it comes to delays or cancellations caused by mechanical problems, crew shortages or other types of nonweather-related problems, Alaska/Horizon policy calls for providing either a phone card or making a phone available to passengers whose flights are delayed an hour or more.

For a delay of two or more hours, the airline gives passengers either 1,000 bonus miles or a $25 discount on a future flight.

If you’re 100 miles or more away from home, Alaska/Horizon will provide hotel accommodations and transportation.

United Airlines’ policies call for providing a night’s hotel stay only when a flight is diverted to another airport and the delay is expected to exceed four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Certain city pairs are excluded, such as a flight bound for Miami landing instead in Fort Lauderdale. In that case, United provides ground transportation to get passengers home.

Delta has a similar policy, but throws in a meal voucher for travel that’s interrupted for more than four hours as a result of a delay or cancellation.

Continental’s policy calls for passengers to get a meal if the delay extends beyond normal meal hours, and up to two meals in the case of a hotel stay. It also throws in a three-minute long-distance phone call for delays exceeding two hours.

Southwest Airlines promises nothing in writing other than to rebook or offer a refund for the unused portion of a flight.

“It’s gray, but it’s gray intentionally,” says Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz.

This means the airline can decide what to do on a case-by-case basis without being held to a written policy.

The next time you’re stuck somewhere and feel tempted to chew out the person behind the counter, you might want to think twice and politely plead your case.

“In many circumstances, it will fall to the gate agent to come up with a solution,” Mainz says.

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