Winter Snow Storms: What the Airlines Need to Do for Passengers

A reader of my blog is still steaming because of her canceled flight out of New York last week. She knew it was snowing hard, and that other airlines had canceled flights at JFK, but her airline insisted her flight was still on.

And so it was, right up until the moment when everyone gathered up their things in preparation for boarding. Then they canceled it.

"I wasted half a day of vacation, wasted money on transportation to the airport and then back home," she wrote. "All in all, it was just a hot mess."

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And that really is a shame because many airlines -- including my reader's -- were proactive, canceling many flights well in advance of the storms, and letting their customers know via phone, e-mail, Twitter and even on Facebook pages.

Could they have done better? You'd better believe it; more on that in just a moment.

But while the new pro-activity is great, goodness knows customers haven't always been treated with such care. In fact, in perhaps the most notorious incident ever, passengers likened their fate to being in a … prisoner-of-war camp.

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It happened on Valentine's weekend three years ago: icy weather grounded JetBlue planes at Kennedy. Not not only didn't the carrier not cancel ahead of time -- it kept the passengers (hundreds of them) on the planes on the tarmac -- for up to 10 1/2 hours. One passenger was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "It was like -- what's the name of that prison in Vietnam where they held McCain? -- the Hanoi Hilton."

JetBlue learned a hard lesson three years ago: not only did its reputation take a dive, but the incident cost the carrier an estimated $44 million in lost revenue (from canceled flights and "we're sorry" vouchers for angry passengers).

Contrast with that with JetBlue's proactive performance during 2010's awful weather; a spokesmen, quoted in a news report, actually said, "We've been doing it ever since our infamous Feb. 14th debacle because we found that it's easier and healthier for the system … rather than leaving it to chance."

Winter Weather Hits Airports

Of course, that's good PR and good customer service. And thanks to the airlines being proactive, a lot of would-be fliers avoided the tedious trip to the airport. They could then sit back and let the carrier assign them to the next available flight, or they could do it themselves online or on the phone. Of course, there was a certain frustration getting airline agents on the phone, but there was a lot of competition.

A whole lot. According to the Air Transport Association of America, the airline industry trade group, some 13,000 flights were canceled from Feb. 5 through Feb. 10 alone (that's over a million passengers).

I am sure Mother Nature was playing a cruel joke on the marketing departments of American Airlines and Virgin America since both announced new fees just in time for the mid-Atlantic airport pandemonium (American will now charge eight bucks for a blanket, while Virgin upped its bag fees by $5).

But as I said, being proactive and canceling iffy flights ahead of time does engender good will. And so does dumping the stiff "change fee" which can cost as much as $150 -- thank you, airlines for doing that in the wake of the storms, and thank you even more for, in most cases, waiving the fare differential, which could have been absolutely horrendous.

Here's how that works: let's say you paid $240 for flight from New York to Los Angeles on Continental. It's canceled, and you want to get on a flight the next day. As I write this, a next day non-stop flight on Continental costs $1,006 -- so if you had to pay the difference in fares, you'd have to pony up an additional $766. Mercifully, you don't have to.

Well, you don't if you act quickly, and here's the rub: some airlines only allow you a few days to rebook in the event of a weather cancellation; on United's Web site, for example, it currently says "For waiver-eligible itineraries, we recommend that you reschedule your travel as soon as possible." Uh, right. But why don't airlines give you a little more time? Some folks have already lost precious vacation days due to the storms -- and might want to take a trip later in the year when they've accumulated more time. Too bad.

Flight Cancellations

Now JetBlue had the right idea; it allowed passengers to rebook without penalty through the end of February. Plus, it was written in everyday English; I noticed numerous airlines stating their weather cancellation policies in advanced legalese. To me, though, the real problem is that the number of days airlines allowed passengers to rebook was all over the map. I think a uniform policy is called for -- allowing all passengers on weather-related cancellations a specific amount of time to rebook without penalty. It's always nice to know your options in advance.

Another idea: why don't the airlines designate a Twitter feed just for emergencies and cancellations? The airlines could even share it, and passengers would know it's the go-to "channel" for any dicey situation.

I do want to be very clear that I applaud the airlines' proactive efforts during these recent blizzards, but more could be done. So what's stopping you?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.