Silver lining for weather-weary travelers

United jet gets de-iced at Chicago, O'Hare. (Photo: Austin.Happel / Flickr)

The new “three-hour rule” that forbids holding passengers on board grounded aircraft for more than three hours is forcing airlines to change the way they deal with winter storms.

In the past, airlines hesitated to cancel flights hoping that weather might quickly change for the better and allow them to resume operations.

But with the threat of heavy fines for holding passengers on planes over three hours (now $27,500 per passenger) or having them stuck at the airport, airlines are now much more likely to cancel flights hours or even days ahead of time. Affected passengers are instructed to stay away from the airport until operations are up and running.

I think this is a good thing, because with ample warning, fewer passengers are likely to be marooned at airports for hours waiting for flights to take off. When airlines pre-cancel thousands of flights, as they’ve done during recent winter storms, they’ve done a relatively good job of letting affected passengers know to just stay home and stay warm.

Early notification of flight cancellations is also allowing more travelers to take advantage of an option airlines rarely trumpet: that passengers on canceled flights can opt out of any alternatives the airlines offer and get a FULL REFUND. That’s right. For example, let’s say you were booked on a flight from SFO to New York this past Monday for a Tuesday meeting, returning on Wednesday. If your flight was canceled on Monday and it no longer made sense to go to New York at all, you could refuse alternate flights and get a full refund.

The downside of this is that airline websites are still rather weak when it comes to handling the re-booking process, forcing many travelers to phone overburdened call centers and wait endlessly on hold. As a result of this weakness, I expect airlines to double up on current efforts to develop and roll out mobile applications that will allow passengers to re-book themselves on canceled flights from their smart phones.

Overall, despite all the recent bad weather and delays, there’s good new for air travelers here. I’d rather wait out a storm at home or in a hotel rather than at the airport. Plus, I’d be willing to accept a slightly longer delay to do so.

What about you?

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