What makes an airline bad-weather waiver a useful waiver?

Airline weather waivers are not all created equal

winter weather flight delaysWhatever your position on the climate change debate, it’s pretty clear this is a rough winter for travelers. Weather issues resulting in flight cancellations and delays plagued travelers during the Thanksgiving holiday season and airlines issued lots of weather waivers.

For travelers whose flights are canceled, as unpleasant as the experience may be, at least the process with tickets is straightforward. The airline will refund the money if the traveler asks. However, it’s generally not automatic and the passenger or your travel agent/advisor will need to ask and/or process the refund.

Refund processes are cumbersome

5 Ways to Avoid Flight Delays DownloadBut when there are delays or expected delays, the refund/waiver process is often cumbersome. While airlines can’t fix their weather, they can certainly do something about their waiver process.

Weather waivers vary, both by airline and with each specific occurrence. This is the basic idea: Bad weather is expected, and the airline responds by saying passengers can change tickets without a fee if space is available. So far, so good. But as with many things, the devil is in the details.

A big problem develops when airlines restrict the time that future travel can take place.

For example, with an expected storm this week on the East Coast, most airlines allow passengers to reschedule if they can travel later in the week. However, for a business trip where a meeting might be canceled due to anticipated bad weather, there’s no guarantee the meeting will be rescheduled for the same week. Or, when travelers are headed to a wedding or funeral, rescheduling is not always possible.

Sometimes a single traveler on a work-related trip decides it’s not worth risking long delays. They may not be able to adjust their schedule immediately to a few days later. So, in all these cases, passengers are liable for the usual $200 change fee even if they find the same fare at a later date.

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Waivers for weather-delayed flights may be useless when they are time-restricted

9 Tactics to Survive Denied Boarding DownloadPerhaps corporate travelers can absorb costs as part of doing business. However, leisure travelers may really take a financial hit. If a traveler or travelers are planning a trip to visit friends and family, there are so many factors like work and school that could affect rescheduling. It is unrealistic in many cases that a trip can be rescheduled that quickly. Yes, a waiver may help if a passenger is stuck and trying to get home, but an airline offering to allow someone to move a scheduled trip from the weekend to a midweek trip within a week can be, quite frankly, useless.

Sometimes, airlines are a little more realistic. During a particularly bad New York area storm, Delta Airlines allowed passengers to apply the value of their ticket to another trip, as long as the new trip was rescheduled within a week. That ought to be the minimum standard.

Travel advisors can help with weather-delay rescheduling

Travel advisors can also get involved and help. During a time of anticipated or actual delays, I got waived fees for my clients. The airfare was then applied to a different trip entirely. It depends on the airline and the travel advisor. And, not all travelers have someone to advocate for them, plus, all agents don’t have clout.

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It may be reasonable for airlines to have change fees. They need to make a profit. Plus, it seems reasonable that anyone pushing a trip off to a future time pay a higher fare if flights are more costly on the new dates. But when there’s serious weather or other issues affecting airline operations, carriers should simply allow travelers to reschedule.

Some airlines already cancel tickets now when flights are more than 90 minutes late. Carriers should allow a passenger to reschedule a delayed flight as well for any time within a year. It’s only fair.

Photo by Anirudh Koul, Flickr