Usually, the weather -- often referred to as an "act of God" in a ticket contract -- is a perfectly legitimate reason for a delay or a service interruption. But not always.
"That was fine with me," says Duane, an attorney who lives in San Clemente, Calif. "I understood the reason for the delay."
But not what happened next. Even after the lightning strikes stopped and the storm moved on a few moments later, her flight lingered at the gate. It waited another hour before boarding, causing her and her family to miss a connection. To reach her final destination, she had to rent a car in Charlotte, which the airline didn't cover because the delay was weather-related.
She wonders: Was the storm just one reason -- but not the main reason -- for the holdup? She asked an airline representative after landing. "They admitted that the weather did not stop them from taking off," she says. "I think they absolutely could have departed on time."
Lightning near the field closes the ramp for safety reasons, according to US Airways spokesman John McDonald. This means that no bags can be loaded onto the plane, all fueling must be stopped, catering is suspended and no crew walkaround inspections can take place. Even if the storm clears and an on-time departure is technically possible, there's one last hurdle: air traffic.
"The FAA routing system operates at near capacity on most good days," McDonald adds. "So one or two strong storms in the wrong place can wreak unseen havoc -- and confusion -- for the average traveler."
Last winter, I suggested in this column that airlines should consider revising their passenger contracts to more clearly describe what happens when schedules can't be kept. Among other changes, I recommended including a clause providing for a prompt, unambiguous disclosure of the reason for a flight delay. (Did they listen to me? No.)
Since then, it has become clear that this problem isn't limited to airlines.
Readers shared stories of hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines and travel insurance companies invoking the "Act of God" clause in their contracts, which lets them off the hook for bad weather or any other natural disasters that prevent them from offering a service. I also heard from travelers who admitted that they, too, had pulled the weather card, using it to secure a refund for a nonrefundable hotel room.
Howard Altschule told me that weather is unfairly blamed for all kinds of problems, and he ought to know. He's a forensic meteorologist based in Albany, N.Y., and gets paid to tell clients when an "act of God" is, well, an act of God.
"Some scenarios," he says, "are more obvious than others."
Professional meteorologists usually follow the National Weather Service when it comes to advisories, he explains. So, for example, when government meteorologists issue a tornado warning, the rest of the weather community tends to fall in line behind it and make the same recommendations.
And when it doesn't, Altschule's phone rings. His company, Forensic Weather Consultants, is helping several businesses that closed during superstorm Sandy last year after governments declared a state of emergency and ordered evacuations. The companies filed insurance claims for business interruption but were denied compensation.
"Weather is what I like to call the all-purpose excuse," says Michael Smith, a senior vice president at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions in Wichita, Ks. He recalls ordering flowers for his wife last Valentine's Day. When the bouquet didn't arrive on time, his florist blamed an ice storm. True, the area had experienced an ice storm -- one week earlier.
Challenging a travel company's assertions about weather doesn't require a doctorate in meteorology, says Smith. For example, when an airline invokes the weather, you can click on the Federal Aviation Administration website (http://www.fly.faa.gov) to check for airport weather delays. A green dot means that the airport is open and unaffected by the weather. Another site, Flightstats (http://www.flightstats.com), offers detailed information about your flight, including the official reason for any delay.
If the weather reports don't jibe with a company's claims, Smith recommends whipping out your smartphone. Snapping a screenshot of the FAA site and a corresponding photo of the airport flight arrivals and departures board may give you enough information to challenge the "weather" excuse. Remember, if the delay is caused by something else, such as a mechanical problem, then most airline contracts require the carrier to offer meal vouchers and accommodations when there's an overnight delay.
Janice Hough, a travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif., says that sometimes a compelling story will do the trick. On a recent United Airlines flight from Orlando to San Francisco, her baggage was initially delayed because of thunderstorms in the area, but the delay was extended when her airline couldn't find a truck to serve the plane. She could see the spectacle unfolding from her window seat as the plane prepared for takeoff.
"I didn't have a video camera to record it," she remembers.
United initially refused to offer her any compensation for the delayed luggage, invoking the weather clause in its contract, but when she told a representative the whole story, the airline caved and offered her a voucher.
The same strategy works for a car rental bill. If a company tries to stick you with a repair invoice for flood or hail damage, your own time-stamped digital photos of the car taken with your cellphone may get you off the hook. A new iPhone and Android app called Rental Pics (http://www.dmwtec.com) can also help. The program automatically creates a file containing all the pictures associated with a rental and allows you to make any damage notations.
Smith says that a forensic meteorologist can generate a hail report that could exonerate you for as little as $100. When you're faced with a five-digit damage bill, that may be a sound investment.
Bottom line? Keep an eye on the weather this summer. Because the travel industry likes to play the weather card -- whether it should or not.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)