Dear Tripped Up,
I was one of three adults who led a backpacking trip to the Colorado Rockies this past June with six teenage Boy Scouts from Troop 876 of Savannah, Ga. After seven nights camping, our eighth night — June 26 — was to be aboard a redeye to Kennedy Airport, followed by a morning flight to Savannah, both on JetBlue Airways. But our Denver departure was delayed over two hours and we missed the connection. We waited for three hours in line, only to politely be told the next flight available was five days later, even after we offered to fly to Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., or Jacksonville, Fla., instead. JetBlue would not provide a hotel. So we opted for a refund (plus $12 meal vouchers), rented two cars and drove 14 hours home, racking up about $1,200 in travel expenses. But when our refunds from JetBlue came through, they totaled $261 for nine of us, only 18 percent of the original cost. A customer service representative later explained to me by phone that we had been reimbursed for only the New York to Savannah leg. We believe JetBlue should have gotten us on an earlier flight on a different airline or at least reimbursed us for the nine fares and fees totaling $1,458, and perhaps chipped in for the expenses to get home. Can you help? Spencer, Savannah, Ga.
Phew! I thought you were going to ask me how to feed six growing Boy Scouts on $12 meal vouchers at an airport food court.
You had every right to receive a full flight refund from JetBlue Airways. The Transportation Department requires airlines to offer refunds if flights are “significantly delayed,” regardless of reason, and the federal policy contains no detectable clause allowing JetBlue to reimburse a laughably tiny percentage of the original cost. Derek Dombrowski, a spokesman for the airline, admitted that JetBlue erred here, and told me that someone would reach out to you. You reported back that a representative called and apologetically agreed to credit you the full $1,458, throwing in nine $100 vouchers for future travel.
As Mr. Dombrowski later explained to me in an email: “Our policy in this circumstance — where a customer is not rebooked after a canceled flight or due to a missed connection out of the customer’s control — is a full refund provided to the original form of payment for the entire one-way journey.”
“We apologize for this error,” he wrote.
But it sounds more like two errors to me. When you originally saw the paltry reimbursement, you called JetBlue and they doubled down with the sketchy single-leg explanation. (And even then, how was a single leg worth only $29?) I do hope that JetBlue will adhere more closely to its policy in the future.
The airline appears to be right on the rest. You were not likely entitled to those hotel rooms or even to an earlier flight on a different airline.
That is because on June 26, thunderstorms caused thousands of delays and cancellations in the Northeast. Earlier in the day, according to data from Flightaware.com, the aircraft that you would eventually take from Denver spent over eight hours on the J.F.K. tarmac, likely grounded by storms. It took off two hours late for a flight to Denver that evening, in turn delaying your flight. That meant your flight delay was “uncontrollable,” confirmed Mr. Dombrowski, meaning it was not the fault of the airline — a category that also includes security-line backups, air traffic control problems and other issues.
If the delay had been the result of, say, an airline staffing shortage or mechanical issue, that would count as a “controllable delay,” and you would have been offered a hotel stay.
Massive storms are one thing. But sometimes just how “uncontrollable” a delay is can get murky. Many a frequent flier can recount a time when an airline informed passengers of a “weather-related delay” on a perfect day for picnicking at both the airport of origin and destination. That is because with some planes flying a half-dozen or more legs daily with self-imposed tight turnaround times, weather anywhere can cause a delay anywhere else. And guess who gets to decide whether the delay was controllable? The airlines themselves.
I crunched some numbers from the Transportation Department’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports and found that of all the delays in the first four months of 2023, the latest data available, just one-third — 157,485 of 471,608 — were deemed “air carrier delays,” defined as “due to circumstances within the airline’s control.”
“It is not always easy for the consumer to know whether an airline is to blame for a flight delay or cancellation,” wrote Ethan Alpern, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, in a detailed email answering my questions about how airlines determine delays. Extreme weather, national aviation system issues and security delays are just a few official categories.
The tables of statistics that the government publishes in those reports is pretty confusing. For example, airlines often claim a delay is the result of “late arriving aircraft,” which means it is not officially an “air carrier delay,” although, according to Mr. Alpern, half of those delays are the fault of the airline.
There is potential good news on the horizon: One month before your trip, the Transportation Department announced a rule-making process that will better clarify what counts as a controllable delay. There is no precise timeline when that’s rolling out, but in the meantime, anyone who suspects an airline may have called a delay uncontrollable when it was actually the airline’s fault are encouraged to register a complaint, said Mr. Alpern. (The department looks into every complaint and contacts the airline when necessary, he noted.)
Information on just what airlines will provide in the case of controllable delays can now be found easily with the Transportation Department’s “Cancellation and Delay Dashboard,” on which 10 of the largest carriers in the United States make explicit their commitments for rebooking, lodging, ground transportation and so on for stuck passengers. The dashboard also links to specifics for each airline.
For controllable delays, JetBlue is one of five of those 10 airlines that has committed to book passengers on a partner airline when necessary. According to your story, JetBlue officials did attempt to book your group on American Airlines, even though they didn’t have to in these circumstances, so kudos to them. Alas, JetBlue’s code-share agreement with American ended on July 21, so future Boy Scout troops (and other passengers) might not be afforded the same largess.
This brings up yet another murky issue: There is no official or public list of airline partnerships, according to Mr. Alpern. Mr. Dombrowski of JetBlue declined to answer my question about whether the carrier has any other agreements with airlines that would allow rebooking for controllable (and sometimes uncontrollable) delays.
Finally, those $100 vouchers were also a nice touch, but I imagine you would much rather prefer reimbursements for your car rental and related expenses. Well, let’s put it this way: N.B.A. players are more likely to find sufficient leg room in coach than delayed passengers are to be reimbursed for expenses that are not preapproved in writing. Most airlines make that clear in the contract of carriage you agree to when you book a flight.
The only thing that could have saved you here is (tepid drum roll please) — travel insurance.
That is why I had you check which credit card you had used to book the trip, hoping it was one of the fancier ones, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Platinum cards, that include a trip delay benefit. It was not. For future trips, you might want to consider buying trip-delay coverage. Just read my recent column on travel insurance for more bad news before you do.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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