'Sorry, but your flight is canceled due to weather conditions.' Experts say don’t be so quick to accept that excuse.

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Travelers have rights but they need to be clear-headed about their options

Is blaming the weather for a flight cancelation too easy for an airline to use as an excuse? Some aviation pundits claim it might be.

During the pandemic, airlines were called out for using weather as an excuse when there was likely a pilot shortage.

However, in the aftermath of Southwest Airlines' recent implosion and with winter not even halfway through its yearly dance, travelers should know how to interpret what an airline really means when it takes a scheduled flight off the board for weather-related reasons.

Southwest agents did try the weather excuse as a reason to deny covering costs for stranded passengers, airline travel expert Gary Leff writes at A View from the Wing, but the cop-out didn’t stick with passengers or the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the airline’s hand was forced to cover any reasonable hotel and alternate transportation expenses passengers were facing.

What airlines are being forced to face now

Leff said that Southwest’s switcheroo has shifted rhetoric in the travel industry over what consumers are owed – and when. As proof, just take a look at the recent CNBC interview with American Airlines CEO Robert Isom where he went on record saying that when a delay or cancelation is the fault of American “we owe the customers.”

“That is likely news to American’s Customer Relations team,” Leff said. “If you send in a request for compensation due to a delay that the carrier stretches to call ‘weather-related’, respond with this clip from their boss’s boss’s boss saying ‘not so fast, when you don’t recover your operation Robert Isom says you owe your customers!’”

ConsumerAffairs reached out to American for comment but did not hear back from the company immediately.

"Squishy," is how another airline expert puts the industry’s definition of weather.

"The definition of weather has expanded a bit," Meara McLaughlin, vice president of business development for flight data site FlightStats.com, told Frommers. 

"It isn't just the conditions at your airport, along the way, or at your destination that count, but weather anywhere in the system that can be invoked. That's because the airlines' so-called ‘hub and spoke’ system relies on aircraft coming from other cities, which could be affected by weather. To my way of thinking, you have to call that something other than weather," she said.

How travelers can avoid 'weather-related' problems

In seasons where weather is iffy – like winter and tornadoes/hurricanes – it’s typical for a major airline to issue weather waivers in advance so travelers have an opportunity to make changes in advance, frequently without having to pay a change fee.

For example, when United Airlines saw nasty forecasts for weather across the Rockies and the Plains, it gave travelers the wherewithal to make changes at no cost. ThriftyTraveler has a list of what waivers other airlines offer, too.

But if all goes to hell in a handbasket and you find yourself at the airport across the counter from an airline agent who’s telling you that your flight is canceled because of weather, you apparently have rights, but getting something satisfactory might take some doing.

“Here in the U.S., travelers have shockingly few rights,” ThriftyTraveler’s Kyle Potter said. “Really, there's just this one: If your airline cancels your flight, you can cancel your reservation and get a full refund – not just a voucher or credit that expires in a year, but your money back. And that includes when weather is the cause of the disruption.”

If the agent is trying to save their hide and their airline the cost of a refund, they might try and rebook you on the next available flight, Potter said. The problem there is that the “next available flight” could be hours – or days – away. Still, “this law means you've got the option to cancel the reservation altogether and get your money back.”

At that point, travelers need to have a serious talk with themselves because a knee-jerk decision could cause the problem to snowball.

“Of course, that means you'd have to scrap your entire trip and try again another time. At the very least, if you decide to call it quits on your trip, make sure to request a full refund – don't just settle for a travel voucher,” Potter said.

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