High passenger volume and deadly storms create a holiday horror story for one family stranded in Houston.
When twelve tornadoes touched down in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, it created the perfect storm for one family trying to get home from a holiday: the busiest travel season of the year all wrapped up in five days of delays and cancellations.
Nineteen members of the George family, of Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, traveled to Cozumel, Mexico for Christmas vacation. The party was scheduled to return to Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) Saturday evening via Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) on American Airlines Flight 1256, which was diverted to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to refuel.
As the Georges were redirected to IAH Saturday, El Nino was unleashing a violent storm system that was spewing 12 deadly tornadoes in the Dallas area during the six-hour period, from roughly 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The weather kept Flight 1256 in Houston and spawned a five-day delay for the George family – echoing a increasingly common tale told by flyers nationwide.
American continued Flight 1256 to the following morning as storms continued throughout Texas. During a two-hour additional delay to DFW, American crew noted that the plane at the gate was not the same plane from the previous flight.
“The pilot sat up and became very frustrated,” Tiffany George, who was traveling with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, told FlyerTalk Wednesday. “[The pilot] made an announcement that they brought the wrong plane and that his first officer had timed out so he was getting a new first officer.”
After an additional 40-minute wait, the correct plane taxied to the gate.
“We went down the jetway with our tickets and the pilot met us in the doorway of the plane to announce to us that the entire crew had now timed out and the flight was cancelled,” said Tiffany George.
The George family spent the next 48 hours calling American’s customer service and standing in lines at IAH.
“Every single adult in my family was calling the airlines and being put on hold for hours at a time only to be told they couldn’t put us on for another two to three days,” Rebecca George said.
At one point, Rebecca George said American’s automated call-back service took seven hours to return her call.
American spokesperson Ross Feinstein told FlyerTalk Wednesday night that the airline cancelled over 2,600 flights due to the extreme weather that impacted the Dallas/Fort Worth-area Saturday and Sunday, and an ice storm that hit Chicago Monday.
“We also had nearly 200 diversions due to inclement weather on Saturday and Sunday too,” Feinstein told FlyerTalk via email. “This complex storm system has posed a challenge for aviation across the nation.”
American finally booked ten members of the George party on United Airlines (UA) Flight 1533 from IAH to SLC scheduled for Tuesday departure at 9:37 p.m. However, after delaying until 1:54 a.m. departure, the United crew cancelled the flight because they were too tired to fly.
“They are not timed out. They are just too tired,” said George.
“Yes, it’s 4 a.m. and we’re just returning from the airport, yes again,” Rebecca George, Tiffany’s sister who was traveling with her 8-year old son and 11 year-old daughter, said in an Instagram post accompanying the photo below.
“Tonight was about 10 hours of delays and lines, only to wait until 1:45 to have United Airlines pilots say they were refusing to fly because they were tired,” Rebecca George said. “United Airlines then tried to cover it up by insisting it was weather related so they didn’t have to accommodate us.”
Tiffany George followed United’s direction and headed to Terminal E to rebook their flight. A sole United agent working the counter at 3:45 a.m. told flyers their shift was over and other agents would arrive an hour later. The Georges were then placed on a standby list of 47 people for a flight oversold by three seats.
United spokesperson Maddie King told FlyerTalk Thursday that Flight 1533 was cancelled due to extreme weather conditions.
“I’m up for 24 hours at this point and I just started sobbing,” Tiffany George said. “This entire process has brought me to my knees and the amount of disconnect and disregard I’m getting from American is staggering. Its implausible.”
Tuesday morning, an American customer service representative told Tiffany George via a phone call that the earliest flight the airline could issue confirmed seats to SLC was January 2.
Feinstein said rebooking a large group can be challenging – especially when unexpected weather events occur on top of already-full flights during the holidays.
Earlier in December, Airlines for America (A4A), an airline industry advocacy organization, projected holiday travel to increase 3 percent over the year prior to 38.1 million flyers on U.S. airlines during the 17-day period between Dec. 18 and Jan. 3. A4A projected planes to operate at an average of 80 percent to 90 percent passenger capacity.
Tiffany George’s niece and nephew flew separately – and arrived in SLC Monday. Her sister, Dena Merrill, rented a car and started the 25-hour drive back to SLC with two kids in tow while her husband rented his own car to drive to El Paso for a Wednesday business meeting.
Ulitmately, Tiffany George, her parents, daughter and husband arrived in SLC Tuesday afternoon via two American flights.
The final Georges, Rebecca and her two children and Barbara and Russ George and their three children, arrived via American in SLC Wednesday night.
“What does a woman and her two small children have to do to get home for the rest of the holiday?” Rebecca George wrote in an Instagram post accompanied with this picture.
Tiffany George estimates the delay cost her family $1,015 in hotel, taxis, additional baggage fees and food – on top of the original $1,190 round-trip fare per ticket she paid for herself, her husband and 8-year-old daughter. Rebecca George said her expenses exceeded $1,000.
“When bad weather causes a cancellation and a delay stretches overnight, we can help defray some unexpected expenses,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein pointed to American’s “distressed passenger rate” vouchers, given by customer service agents which give stranded flyers discounted rates at available local hotels.
Hotel room and incidental charges (meals, telephone calls, transportation, etc.) are not covered by American for weather-related delays and cancellation and are at flyers’ expense. Nearly all major domestic carriers have similar weather-related policies.
The Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights webpage explains there are no federal requirements for airlines accommodating delayed passengers.
“Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers,” the DOT said on its website. “Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control. Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.”
Bright Moments in Dreary Days
Tiffany George noted bright moments in otherwise tedious travel. She credits an American customer service supervisor named Susan she spoke with Tuesday morning via phone for getting priority verification stamped on standby vouchers on the flights that finally returned them home.
“I would also love to mention how amazingly kind, compassionate and considerate the flight crew was on both flights from Houston to Dallas and Dallas to SLC,” Tiffany George said. “The male flight attendant asked a woman to trade seats with my terrified and crying 8-year old daughter so she could sit across the aisle from my parents since we were all spread out in the plane.
“They were flying angels.”
Calls For Modified Regulations
Earlier this month, FlyerTalk reported new analysis on the impact of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Tarmac Delay Rule and suggestions that regulation modifications increasing the tarmac time limit by thirty minutes to three and a half hours and only on flights before a 5 p.m. departure.
The study, “Tarmac delay policies: A passenger-centric analysis,” was published in the journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice (Volume 83, January 2016).
“We find that the Rule has been highly effective in reducing the frequency of occurrence of long tarmac times,” said the study’s authors. “However, another significant effect of the rule has been the rise in flight cancellation rates. Cancellations result in passengers requiring rebooking, and often lead to extensive delay in reaching their final destinations.”
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is expecting increased precipitation thanks to El Nino for the early 2016 months. Below, find tips to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
- Stay calm. Screaming and rude behavior will not evaporate a storm or fix a plane’s engine. Nor will it endear you to airline staff who can make or break your rebooking process.
- Never pack vital medications or other necessities. While Feinstein said that American, like flyers, expects planes to depart on schedule, unexpected circumstances arise that can cause substantial delays.
- Bring a journal and take notes of departing times including delays, communication from the airline, direct contact with airline personnel and other relevant facts. These details may help the airline piece together the events that led to your delay.
- Although major domestic carriers do not reimburse flyers for expenses incurred during weather-related delays and cancellations, keep your receipts in case a portion of your expenses could be refunded.
- Ask airline and hotel staff for discounts for lodging and food or special discounts for stranded travelers called “distressed passenger rates.”
- Consider alternatives. Are you five hours away from your destination via car and not yet booked on another flight?
- If your trip can be rescheduled, postponing or canceling may be an attractive alternative to waiting for an indeterminate length of time, Feinstein said. If your originally-scheduled flight was cancelled and you decide not to travel, you can receive a full refund.
- Check your carrier’s weather policy before you wait hours in line or on the phone so you know what to expect regarding delays and re-bookings.
- Know your Fly Rights according to DOT. Print a copy and keep it with you during the duration of your trip.
[Photos: Rebecca George]