THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Delta duex: When and 'weather' flights get cancelled

Never let it be said that Tough Customer is not tough on himself.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Bill Emory's cancelled Delta flight from Atlanta to Charlottesville. Emory had some questions about the circumstances and reasons behind the cancellation of his flight. I quoted a Delta spokeswoman, Susan Elliott, who attributed it to "weather." ["Flying home: Delta flight grounded, but why?" August 28]

After I told Elliott that Emory claimed the weather was clear in both Charlottesville and Atlanta at the time, Elliott suggested that there was poor weather over the Northeast at the time, which would account for her explanation. Given this response, I described Elliott's explanation as "nebulous."

I stand by that description– it was nebulous– but to the extent that my description implied anything was amiss in this case, perhaps I have plenty to learn about the way airlines operate and that perhaps Elliott's nebulosity was not indicative of any chicanery on Delta's part.

According to airline expert Terry Trippler of, Elliott's vague explanation for the cancellation of the flight most likely reflected the online information available to her.

Trippler has no knowledge regarding the flight in question, but he explains that many flight cancellations really can be attributed to "weather" even when the weather appears fine in the cities directly involved in the flight. Often, Trippler explains, bad weather in another place can prevent an aircraft and crew slated for the scheduled flight from making its way to the embarkation point.

Thus, bad weather in say, Biloxi, may prevent an aircraft from making its way to Atlanta, causing the cancellation of a flight to Charlottesville.

Trippler further explains that when Elliott would access a database regarding the reason for the Atlanta to C'ville flight cancellation, all she would see is that the flight was cancelled due to weather, without further details.

Dave Smallen of federal Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that his group obtains flight cancellation data from the airlines and sends it to the FAA which "validates" the causes, but Smallen declined to go into specifics about what's involved in that process. The July information just went online, so it may not be until October until the this August event is "validated."

Aggrieved passenger Emory had also wondered whether airlines were quicker to cancel flights to small markets like Charlottesville as opposed to larger cities, like Cincinnati.

I looked at some statistical data from the Bureau that suggests that was not the case. Indeed, flight cancellation rates for Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, or CHO, are slightly below the national average, and significantly below the rates of a couple of large airports I checked, including Cincinnati and New York's LaGuardia.

Jason Burch, CHO's marketing director, had told me that airlines are more sensitive to canceling flights to smaller airports like CHO as opposed to larger airports because they realize that the relative infrequency of flights creates greater passenger and pilot/crew inconvenience when a cancellation occurs.

"Many factors go into [these decisions]," says Trippler. There were some obvious ones, such as the number of passengers inconvenienced, and some less obvious ones, such as ensuring planes were in place for subsequent flights and, just as significantly, juggling the schedules of flight crews, which are heavily regulated.

In other words, Emory's concern that Charlottesville gets picked on because we are a small airport seems unfounded. 

The bottom line, Trippler says, was that while he could appreciate the hassles experienced by Emory, he doubted there was anything to be done on his behalf.

What is more difficult to explain, however, is Delta's failure to keep Emory and his fellow passengers fully informed. At the Atlanta airport, Emory first received conflicting and incomplete information from Delta regarding the reason for the flight's cancellation and when Emory could catch another flight. He was left to fend for himself, and not given what he considered adequate information.

That Emory lucked out and met up with another passenger to rent a car to drive back to Charlottesville occurred in spite of, not because of, Delta's customer service.

What makes this even more inexplicable is that, based on Trippler's assessment, it appears Delta may have acted appropriately in canceling the flight, but in providing Emory, and later me, with, yes, nebulous information, the airline left a customer feeling both aggrieved and deceived.

Over time, that kind of customer service will not fly.

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



What a fizzle! This story started out as an expose of the grand conspiracy on the part of the evil airlines to mistreat small-market customers and lie about weather cancellations. It ends up as, 'Well, they could have done a better job communicating.' What about your quality control?

when are consumers going to learn thet a plane is just a bus with wings.

You are cattle. deal with it.