Friday, June 22, 2012

The Airline Lie

This morning I had an enjoyable time giving a speech to the Pennsylvania League of Municipalities and Cities at their annual meeting in Pittsburgh. After, I headed to the airport to fly to Chicago, change planes, and then on to Wichita.

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:
click to enlarge
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:
click to enlarge
"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:
  1. 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. 

* shamelessly stolen from travel writer Joe Brancatelli


  1. United plus O'Horror equals ugly ordeal, once again. I'm saddened, but alas, not surprised, by your experience. Corporately institutionalized dishonesty is still dishonesty, and there is no valid reason for it...none!

    You might be amused by a rather bizarre flight delay I had (among many) with that bunch, at that airport. On this occasion, there was no blaming weather whatsoever, as I am the one who discovered the inexcusable problem that led to the delay!

    ===== Roger =====

  2. Roger, it was ugly but not an "ordeal" in this case (although I have experienced ORDeals in the past).

    What is so discouraging is the culture throughout the airline industry that lying to customers is not only acceptable but, apparently, encouraged. It wasn't the gate agent that put "Delayed - Weather" on the monitor.

  3. Dear Mike,
    I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog! I love meteorology, so for that reason I like it, but it does go beyond that. Your posts are cogent, entertaining, enlightening; I learn a lot, I laugh a lot! Not that this post subject matter was funny, but the "fall of Saigon" comment, the various views of "no weather" (despite the sign to the contrary), and your commentary were hilarious!
    I have your books and have thoroughly enjoyed both of them!! Got a next one "in the wings" (pun intended!)?

  4. Thanks, Lynne. So glad you enjoy the blog.

    At this point, no third book is even in mind. If someone had asked me ten years ago if I would ever write A book I would have confidently said no. The fact that I have two greatly surprises me.

    That said, if the right set up circumstances presents itself, I'll probably write a third.

  5. Actually, the flight you are dealing with may have been impacted by other weather delays in the Air Traffic System. There is a spot over eastern Pennsylvania where a number of flight routes converge. A nice big thunderstorm there can cause major delays all over the country. Also, heavy fog at a major hub can have the same impact backing up the whole air traffic system and therefor even flights that don't encounter weather. The FAA Academy and the Air Weather Center provide some excellent insight into why this happens.

  6. Everything you say is true but doesn't apply to the flight in question or my posting about it.

    The crew was coming from Calgary and the plane from South Bend. As I say in the post, I checked both the terminal and enroute wx from both locations and there was none. As the post goes on to explain, the captain apologized for the fact that we had been told the reason was wx and said the real reason was the fact they were late -- not weather.

  7. Being a Texan with two "hometown" airlines (Southwest & American) and remembering the downdraft-caused Delta crash at DFW in 1985, guess I'm a bit taken aback by the "culture of lies" attack on the entire industry.

    Disruptions in complex networks propagate ....

    Mr. Smith, you rightly applaud the advances in meteorology that have saved many lives, so I find it a bit ironic that such advances (e.g., the science of downdrafts) have, indeed, given rise to many more airline delays that you so strongly deplore.

    How reregulation would alter that (safer) reality escapes me. (By the way, Southwest was created by entrepreneurs who had to fight the old regulatory regime tooth and nail to even get off the ground. And quite remarkably, next Sunday Wichita will become the latest beneficiary of Southwest service. Happy flights!)

  8. I think you are making two points:

    Lying is OK. I strongly disagree. Again, if you will read my piece, the crew admitted it was their late arrival into Chicago that caused the delay and weather had nothing to do with it. This may be OK with you, it is not OK with me.

    While we Wichitans are pleased to have Southwest, the fact is the airline industry is far from "deregulated." The airlines have lobbied the FAA to regulate them all the way down to how many carry-ons can be brought on board. If I had the money and desire to start an airline tomorrow, I could not get the slots to land at ORD, DCA and LGA.

    Before you disagree with my point about re-regulation, please read my series in its entirety.


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