Unfortunately, both of these flights involved the notorious Concourse F at O'Hare ("where the fall of Saigon is reenacted daily"*). As always, United flight 5545 to Wichita showed up as "on time" on the monitor. So, even knowing (based on past experience) there was an excellent chance there would be an unadvertised delay, I headed for the gate in order to arrive about ten minutes before the scheduled time for boarding.
No airplane was present.
I asked the gate agent if the plane that was going to take us to Wichita was on the ground. If the incoming flight was late, I'd resume doing the work I interrupted to go to the gate.
- Agent: The flight to Wichita will be on time.
- Me: That is not what I asked. I would like to know if the plane that is going to take us to Wichita is on the ground.
- Agent: Sir, the flight will be on time.
- Me: All I'd like to know is whether the plane is on the ground.
- Agent: Yes.
Does it take 35 minutes (the interval between her telling me the plane was on the ground and the time it arrived at the gate) to taxi? Given zero weather, I vote no.
Then, the gate agent made a big point of announcing the delay (25 minutes) was due to weather. And, it wasn't just the gate agent making that assertion:
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You can click to enlarge or look at this closeup:
So, let's go searching for this mysterious "weather."
In the background of the wide shot photo above, you can see there is no weather to the east.
Below is a photo looking west. No weather there, either.
Let's look at the radar. Maybe the weather is there. Nope!
There was no weather in either South Bend (where the plane came from) or Calgary (where the crew came from) or along the routes from either city to Chicago.
When we eventually boarded the plane the captain came on the PA and (to his credit) said, "I know they were telling you it was a weather delay. The real reason for the delay was our late arrival from Calgary."
Telling us in the terminal the delay was due to weather was another example of the all-too-frequent airline lie.
As a meteorologist, I have seen this inaccurate blaming of weather time and time again. What would be the airline's motivation for these all-too-often false assertions of weather as the cause of a delay? I the answer may lie in United Airlines' contract of carriage (C of C).
The C of C legally controls the relationship between an airline and its passengers and its shippers. Let's engage in some educated speculation. Here is what Rule 24 of United's says:
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"Beyond UA's control...meteorological conditions..."
Rule 24 goes on to say,
In other words, they don't have to do much for you if weather is the cause of the delay because it is "beyond their control."
And, get this, they take no responsibility even if they deliberately lie to you:
- UA will promptly provide Passengers the best available information regarding known delays, cancellations, misconnections and diversions, but UA is not liable for any misstatements or other errors or omissions in connection with providing such information.
So, they can -- and do -- tell untruths to passengers and then disclaim liability for "misstatements." Since the vast majority of their passengers are not meteorologists, they get away with it.
I'm hardly the first to write about the airline lie. Another essay is here. There are literally dozens of articles that can be found by Googling "airline lies." Like the author of the piece at the first link, I favor re-regulating the airlines. I wrote a 7-part series on this topic in 2010. The summation is here.
At the bare minimum, the Federal Aviation Administration should strike the C of C disclaimers of liability for intentional misstatements of fact. No other industry gets away with this. Airlines shouldn't either.