THE TOUGH CUSTOMER – Flying home: Delta flight grounded, but why?

One of the more ubiquitous aggravations of modern life is air travel. At least, that's what this aerophobic columnist has heard.

The list is long: a fare structure that leaves people paying wildly different amounts for seats on the same exact flights, lost luggage, security hassles and– perhaps the most frustrating– seemingly randomly delayed or cancelled flights.

To a small airport like Charlottesville, with only 50 scheduled flights a day, even a single cancelled flight is no small matter. The "next available flight" might be 24 hours, or– depending on availability– even several days, away.

That's small comfort when you have to get home, and that's what happened to Charlottesville's Bill Emory, who was flying home on August 10 when the final leg of his Delta Air Lines itinerary, from Atlanta to Charlottesville, was suddenly cancelled. The next flight was not until the next day, and Emory could not wait– he needed to get home that evening.

Emory says a Delta customer service representative gave him conflicting explanations for the cancellation, first allegedly saying the FAA had "pulled the flight's certification," and then later that the cancellation was "weather-related."

Emory says, however, that Doppler radar showed no weather problems in either Atlanta or Charlottesville. The bottom line, Emory recalls, was that he was told it "was not Delta's fault." 

That's significant, because according to Delta spokesperson Susan Elliott, if a cancellation is due to something beyond the airline's control, like weather, Delta will not assist inconvenienced passengers with hotel vouchers if they are forced to remain in a layover city overnight or with financial helps with alternative travel arrangements.

Elliott couldn't immediately explain the conflicting information, however, speculating that Delta's representatives may not have known the actual reason themselves. Last week, Elliott said she would identify the reason for the August 10 flight cancellation, but never got back to me with that information. So I checked back with her on Monday, August 25.

Hook: "Did you ever find out why that flight was cancelled?"

Elliott: "Weather." [long pause]

Hook: "Mr. Emory says there was no rain in either Atlanta or Charlottesville, so do you know what weather, specifically, caused it?"

Elliott: "That was a congested weekend up in the Northeast, so it could have been weather along the flight path."

Hook: "Do you know more specifically what caused this cancellation?"

Elliott: "We keep records on these flights, and all we put down is weather. No one ever asked me for more details than that before."

"I am not an experienced air traveler," Emory says. "Is this sort of experience the norm? Are flights to [Charlottesville] more likely to be cancelled than flights to Cincinnati?"

According to data compiled by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2.43 per cent of flights destined for Cincinnati were cancelled between June, 2007 and June, 2008. For Charlottesville, the percentage was 1.43 per cent. Nationally, 2.08 per cent of flights were cancelled over that period.

Fortunately for Emory, he ran into Zafar Kamal, a fellow Charlottesvillian who flies frequently on business, at the Atlanta airport. Kamal also had to get back to C'ville that night, and he knew how to do so: rent a car and drive eight and one half hours.

"Zafar flies all the time," Emory told me, "and so he knows about renting cars."

Delta returned about $80 to Emory as a refund because he did not fly the last leg of his flight, but the rental car cost several hundred dollars.

Jason Burch, Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport's Director of Air Service and Marketing, explained that there are three primary reasons for flight cancellations: mechanical problems, bad weather, and air traffic control issues, such as crowded skies.

According to Burch, airlines usually try to facilitate flights to smaller markets like Charlottesville because cancellations can have a disproportionate effect on passengers compared to larger cities, like Cincinnati, to which there are typically several daily flights from a single location.

Burch also explained that the airlines servicing Charlottesville have strong financial interests in ensuring flights make it back here, specifically, because the planes are based here.

But Burch, who struck me as a sincere advocate on behalf of Charlottesville's air passengers, said that Emory and other travelers should contact him with complaints. Burch's contact info is available at the airport's informative web site,

I urge them to do so– especially after the weather explanation from Delta proved so nebulous.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.