How US Airways applied the “flat tire” rule — to itself

by Janice Hough on May 28, 2009

Chris Elliott wrote a column this week about  how most airlines have dropped their “flat tire” rule which basically allowed travelers to reschedule their flight for no cost for circumstances beyond their control. Well, as Chris also indicated — and one of my clients found out the same day — the airlines still have that rule. It just only applies to circumstances beyond their control.

The gentleman in question had a simple flight on US Airways from San Francisco to Barcelona, with about a two hour connection in Philadelphia. But after the door was closed, the pilot disclosed the first problem: clogged fuel lines that would result in the plane needing to stop in Pittsburgh to refuel because they couldn’t take on enough fuel to make it to Philadelphia.

Leaving aside the worry that it’s only 267 air miles from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and maybe that’s cutting it a little close if they have that little margin for error, my client was worried about his connection.

With the extra stop time, it looked like he would have about 30 minutes, which should have been enough, but I promised to monitor the flight. US Airways reservations agents indicated they would not hold the connection, and in fact had no idea why the plane was late. So I held a backup seat on a later flight to Frankfurt connecting to Lufthansa to Barcelona.

When the plane landed in Pittsburgh, I advised my client about the backup plan, and suggested he run when they landed. He agreed, but called me back a little later and said, the airline won’t give us details but the fueling is taking a while, they are going to be delayed, so we definitely won’t make it.

At this point he still had well over an hour before the second flight, but further ground delays meant when the plane took off, he would only have about 50 minutes on the ground.

But it got better. ATC (Air Traffic Control) delays meant the plane circled for a while, turning a 30 minute flight into a nearly two hour one. Thus the airline kept updating arrival times, and it finally pulled into the gate at 8:27 p.m. — seven minutes after the scheduled departure of the backup flight.

At this point, US Airways posted a 25 minute delay for the Frankfurt flight, so when I got the call from the plane, I advised again: “run.”

When passengers disembarked, however, one US Airways agent told my client that they thought the Barcelona plane was still there. (It wasn’t, the plane had left almost two hours earlier.) So he ran to the wrong gate, then had to turn around and run to the gate he should have gone to in the first place.

As it turned out, I had given US Airways the connecting flight information on Lufthansa, so they were able to reissue the ticket quickly, and he made the flight with five minutes to spare. Fortunately, the best available connection in Frankfurt had been three hours, so even with the delay he made his flight. And arrived in Barcelona “only” seven hours late.

But not everyone was so lucky, my client in fact told me that some fellow passengers he talked to on the plane in Pittsburgh had been told they would have to either overnight in Philadelphia, or stand by on a late flight to London.

So here’s the total of “circumstances beyond their control”: clogged fuel lines to require the extra stop, not informing the crew about the problem until it was not possible for passengers to get off the plane, delays in fueling on the ground (perhaps because it was an unscheduled stop), air traffic delays, and misinformation at the airport.

And hey, it happens, all of these things are either the result of bad luck or simple human error. But US Airways offered nothing by way of compensation to passengers, and in fact, did not even rebook anyone proactively who missed their connection unless that passenger called their travel agent or the airline directly.

But had some of these passengers been low on fuel in their car, had a delay at a gas station, gotten stuck in traffic, or been given the wrong directions, well, those passengers would have probably had to pay a hefty fee either to fly out later and connect to another airline, or to change their reservation to the following day.

US Airways expected their passengers to be understanding and cut them some slack. It would be nice if airline policy was to return the favor.

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  • The man who notices things

    In fact, I would claim it was intentional that USAir did not tell anyone about the fuel line issue which means they breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing -

    And the reason the plane circled to 2 hours may be simply due to the fact that it was over maximum landing weight and needed to burn some fuel off – you see – they probably still HAD fuel on the airplane that they could not transfer – hence the plugged fuel line – but it still counts for weight and the fueler probably put too much on – the pilot realized they would time out if they waited to depart until they could pump the fuel off – so he took off and circled until he was below max landing weight. How else would an airplane that stops for fuel for a 270 mile flight have enough fuel for 2 HOURS of circling?

  • Bill

    Good job Janis.
    Maybe you should open up a travel agent school.

  • Bill

    I’m so sorry…I meant Janice…

  • http://www.ffocus.org Bruce InCharlotte

    Mechanical delay, which this is, falls clearly into problems that are within their control. It’s their plane, their captain, their fuel. ATC is not within their control, but they set up a situation where it came into play. Despicable treatment, but typical for US Air, who is responsible for any added expenses due to this debacle.

  • Frank

    On May 28th, 2009 at 9:53 am The man who notices things said;
    And the reason the plane circled to 2 hours may be simply due to the fact that it was over maximum landing weight and needed to burn some fuel off – you see – they probably still HAD fuel on the airplane that they could not transfer – hence the plugged fuel line – but it still counts for weight and the fueler probably put too much on – the pilot realized they would time out if they waited to depart until they could pump the fuel off
    =============================================================

    When crews originate on the west coast and they flew east, they are starting their day. They can have a DUTY DAY OF 15 HOURS. I dont think it’s a “time out” issue. At times, fueling is one of the last activities on the ramp, therefore, the Capt didnt know about the issue until near departure. What to do? Delay the flight further and let off a small number of passengers. Depart with an (anticipated) short delay in PIT? Probably, 40 percent of those passengers had connections at U’s hub in PHL. Of those 40 percent, 10 percent had international connections and the rest were locals with no connections. Domestic connections could probably be protected on later flights. The international connections unfortunately had the toughest issues arriving too late for travel on the same day. Also, the decision to leave SFO kept in mind, that the plane was also needed downline that night.
    I dont believe it was too much fuel, it sounds more like the nightmare PHL is known for. Like EWR or LGA during a thunderstorm. Janice, is the travel professional, back up your story by researching the ATC situation that evening in PHL.

  • http://msn John Indorf

    Clogged fuel line??? How did the driver know it was clogged? Is there a warning light for a “clogged fuel line”? In the likely 100′s of feet of fuel line on a big jet how would one know in the cockpit where the “clog” was and how quickly a maintenance person could find it and make the aircraft return to service? I believe there was another issue here.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    Was this an ‘old’ America West flight from SFO to PHL or an ‘old’ US Airways flight? If this was an ‘America West’ flight…this is how the old America West handled problems so I wasn’t surprised based upon several years of flying on America West.

    US Airways could have handled the situation better and been proactive. US Airways and the other airlines wonder why they can’t make money! I can’t speak for other passengers but I am willing to spend more money for a fare if the airline provides service. In this case, they provided no value, no service and etc.

    I won’t be surprised if the airlines will go to Washington asking for our money to bail them after the govt is done with GM.

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  • Howard

    The solution is to fly non stop directly to your destination as often and as much as possible. Not only will you have fewer such troubles, but you will save on greehouse gas emissions too (fewer take offs and landings which use more fuel than cruise).

    If you go to Europe, connect to your flights IN EUROPE, as they have laws which require the airlines to compensate passengers for delays just like this one. I fly out of Seattle, when I have to go to Europe I fly direct when possible, or connect in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Paris.

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