Why doesn’t it work both ways with flight cancellations?

No one likes to get a message about a cancelled flight, especially at the last minute or very nearly the last minute. A client of mine messaged me Sunday night because United told him, with three hours notice, that his flight from San Francisco to Cleveland was cancelled. At that point, he had very limited options.

They offered him an alternative, but with a connection arriving five hours later.

The reason given in my computer: “FLIGHT CREW AVAILABILITY.”

Who knows the exact details — maybe a pilot was sick, maybe flight attendants were stuck in some other city, maybe summer thunderstorm delays meant one or more of the flight crew would be over their allotted hours for the week or month.

Sometimes, when airlines cancel one of a number of short flights between two nearby cities, many wonder if the airlines are doing it just to consolidate passengers and not waste fuel and crew hours. However, this flight in question was pretty full, and there was no other nonstop until the next  afternoon. So, it’s a reasonable assumption that United had a good reason. Stuff happens.

Passenger frustration, however, is that the “stuff happens” reasons with flight cancellations almost never go both ways between passengers and airlines. In this case, United re-booked my client with his choice of offering, without offering compensation of any kind. In general, airlines don’t just hand out compensation for delays and cancellations, especially if passengers don’t email or write and ask. (To be fair, sometimes — but not always — they hand things out on the plane. United has customer service cards with a code you can enter to choose frequent miles or a travel voucher.)

There’s also often no way of knowing if a delay or cancellation is something beyond a carrier’s control, or just a silly mistake. (Two of my favorites recently have been a flight attendant accidentally semi-deploying the exit slide, which needed to be repacked, and another time when they just forgot to cater the flight. Oops!)

On the consumer side, if someone dies or there is a major crisis, an airline may be flexible. However, as often as not, the airlines charge the full penalty, then ask travelers to contact customer relations for a potential voucher, credit or refund, after the fact. But, when it’s some more mundane problem — a meeting gets canceled, a babysitter becomes unavailable, or someone’s just not feeling well —  then it’s “tough luck.”

The airlines’ standard mantra is, “If you want flexibility, pay for a flexible fare.” Realistically, more flexible fares are not just slightly higher than discounted penalty fares, they are two to three times higher, which is unaffordable for many leisure travelers, families and business travelers. Plus, insurance doesn’t often cover mundane reasons.

Southwest, of course, still doesn’t charge change fees, which makes them mostly exempt from this rant. But, even so, with a last minute change, the fare difference can be significant, even if the change is only a few hours and the excuse is legitimate.

Realistically, my sense is that the government probably has no interest in deregulating airlines and dealing with flight cancellations; certainly they’ve had enough time to do it. But, it’s hard to think of another industry that so regularly asks its customers to forgive and forget their operational problems and mistakes, and has so little regard for the problems of their customers.