American Airlines’ flight cancellations nearly doubled in June, with 3.43 percent of its flights at Philadelphia International Airport canceled.
The airline, which operates 70 percent of the flights at Philadelphia’s airport, had the highest cancellation percentage of any major airline. There were more than 330 cancellations of departures and arrivals in Philadelphia last month, representing a 93 percent increase in cancellations compared with June 2018, which had a 1.6 percent cancellation rate, according to MasFlight, a flight data analytics group.
Canceled flights are a trend nationally for the airline. American canceled 4 percent of its total flights in June, or more than 7,500 domestic and international flights, according to MasFlight.
The cause of the mass cancellations is multidimensional, and American says it’s working to fix the issue. The airline blames its legal battle with its mechanics union, which it claims is intentionally denying overtime work. American’s pilot union, however, says the airline’s outdated scheduling system can’t handle the slightest of hiccups.
“High numbers of aircraft out of service and severe weather events in our hubs and gateways over the past several weeks have taken a toll on our operation,” said Andrew Trull, spokesperson for American. “We have efforts underway that will help reduce the number of aircraft out of service and get us back to the levels of reliability we know we can produce and customers expect.”
American is the second largest operator of the Boeing 737 MAX aircrafts, which the airline announced will remain grounded through Nov. 2. Trull said that the grounding has led to about 115 flight cancellations per day, but these cancellations are planned in advance and about 95 percent of customers have been accommodated with new itineraries.
Trull also said that American is “fully using new technologies to rebook our customers when their flights are canceled" and providing refreshments at the gates during delays.
Other major airlines fared better in Philadelphia. Southwest had the second-highest number of cancellations at 31, which is 2.17 percent of its total flights. JetBlue was third with 0.67 percent canceled, followed by United with 0.26 percent and Delta with 0.17 percent.
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Passengers can be forced to pay thousands of dollars in hotels and extra flights due to the country’s minimal travel protections. Plus, passengers often have no choice but to continue flying American because it dominates Philadelphia’s air traffic.
"It seems like we’re at the mercy of the airlines,” said Gary Scheiner, who was recently stranded in Orlando for an extra night after a flight back to Philadelphia was canceled. “It’s a helpless feeling.”
The 52-year-old from Bala Cynwyd flies about 30 times a year to lecture across the country about type 1 diabetes. “You have plans to be somewhere at a certain time, but you can’t live that life because of your airline," he said. “It’s like a violation of your sense of well being.”
Stranded in two cities for three nights
David Feldheim was forced to spend nearly $3,500 after American canceled his flights from Philadelphia home to Los Angeles earlier this month.
Feldheim, 71, a lawyer who lived in Philadelphia for 45 years before moving to L.A. in 2016 to be closer to his grandchildren, was traveling with his wife, son, and two grandchildren for their annual summer vacation in Ocean City, N.J.
But when they were heading home on July 6, their 4 p.m. flight turned into a three-day mess of compounding delays and cancellations, which forced him to spend thousands on hotels, food, and new flights home.
Feldheim said they originally boarded their flight on time before sitting at the gate for over an hour because of aircraft power issues. The passengers got off the plane and then back on, then sat for nearly four hours because of the weather. Because the wait was so long, the plane needed to be refueled.
The passengers were forced to get off the plane again, and then the flight was canceled. The airline blamed weather problems for the cancellation, which left passengers on their own for hotel and food accommodations.
Feldheim described the process of trying to see the ticket agents as a “mob scene” of hundreds of people in line for hours. Instead of waiting in line, he received a text that he was placed on a new flight for Monday evening, and spent $1,000 on one room for two nights and another for three nights at a Philly hotel.
Their Monday flight had a connection in Boston. They arrived around 7 p.m., and the flight was immediately delayed for about an hour. Then, it was canceled again because of the weather. This time, Feldheim received a message saying there were no alternative flights. Again, because the cancellation was due to weather, Feldheim was on the hook for all expenses.
He had to spend $300 for another night in Boston before booking his own flights home on Southwest to avoid further cancellations. With only one day’s notice, the two seats cost him $1,460. He spent about $550 on food, $125 on rideshares from the hotels to the airports, and $60 on tips, totaling his costs for the three days at $3,495.
As of July 21, Feldheim had not been able to get in touch with anybody from American to seek a reimbursement.
Flight cancellations due to weather, according to most airlines’ policies, are an extenuating circumstance that gets them off the hook for compensation.
Few passenger protections
U.S. airlines are not legally required to provide customers with any compensation for delayed or canceled flights. The only time that the Department of Transportation requires any sort of compensation is when a passenger is “bumped” off a flight, or involuntarily denied boarding on an overbooked flight, according to its website. All policies regarding cancellations and delays are up to the airline.
“Despite having one of the largest travel markets in the world, the U.S. has quite poor air passenger rights protections and legislation,” said Chrystel Erotokritou, legal adviser of AirHelp, an air passenger rights advocate.
“There seems to be lack of motivation from the U.S. Department of Transportation to pass new legislation,” said Erotokritou. “There is a strong airline lobby not to.”
American’s policy is to provide hotel accommodations and meal vouchers to customers if the reason for the flight cancellation is “within its control,” such as maintenance or crew issues. It is not liable for compensation or accommodations if the reason for cancellation is an “extraordinary circumstance” or “outside of its control,” such as weather or air control traffic.
But what if the cancellation comes after compounding delays by the airlines, as Feldheim experienced? According to airline policies, it’s the ultimate reason for the cancellation that matters.
“In the industry we operate in, we are reliant on cooperative weather to fly,” said Trull, American’s spokesperson. “Our contract of carriage states that, and that’s where our policy stands.” Trull said that the airline will provide snacks and beverages to customers in instances of compounding delays, and that it works with airports to provide sleeping cots and blankets if passengers are stuck overnight.
Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue all have nearly identical policies, and in the end, whether the issue is “within the airline’s control” is up to the airline. The Department of Transportation does not define what constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance,” said Erotokritou.
“Because the protections are very poor, there is not much help we can provide the passengers in the U.S.," Erotokritou said. AirHelp mainly represents passengers in the European Union because it has stricter passenger protections.
Dennis Tajer, an American pilot and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the company’s pilots, thinks that airlines may use weather as a “crutch."
“They may use it as an overlay cloaking device to not provide compensation,” he said.
“That’s not to say that weather doesn’t happen," he said. “But they’ve also built a schedule that’s unable to handle the lightest of storms.” Tajer said that the categorizing of flights for weather vs. maintenance is often not clear. This can become a “tenuous business position when you constantly blame it on the weather.”
Ongoing legal battle with mechanics
The airline has been in a court battle with its mechanics union since May. The airline claims that the group has organized a collective work slowdown and is refusing to work overtime during the peak of summer travel, which it says has led to an unusual number of planes idled for repairs and hundreds of delays and cancellations. The union denied this claim.
The groups have been in contract negotiations since December 2015. The union said that the airline walked away from the contract talks, impacting the workers’ on-the-job morale.
In June, a federal judge ordered the coordinated slowdown to stop, but the airline said this didn’t happen. Then, on July 10, a federal judge approved American’s request that the International Association of Machinists and Transport Workers Union, which represents about 31,000 American Airlines mechanics and other workers, must take more serious attempts to stop the workers’ slowdowns. The judge threatened the union with fines and other punishments.
Court documents filed by American on July 10 claim that every Philadelphia mechanic refused to work a single hour of overtime during the week of July 1 to 7. It said that “during the same period last year, mechanics worked 658 hours of proffered overtime.”
Gary Scheiner’s cancellation may have been a product of this. He said that his 2:20 p.m. flight from Orlando to Philadelphia was delayed for “mechanical problems” and then delayed again because of a flight diversion. Then, when they finally boarded, they sat on the tarmac for two hours, which used up the plane’s fuel. Bad weather set in shortly thereafter, and the airline canceled the flight.
The platinum American member was left on the hook for a $150 hotel room and all related expenses. He said he spent about $250 for the extra day of travel before American was able to put him on a flight home the next day.
“It’s like you’re getting robbed,” he said. “Luckily, it was the weekend. If it was a weekday, I would have lost a day of work, which was worth a heck of a lot more.”