Early waivers for severe weather can benefit airlines and passengers

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Three days before a snowstorm was predicted to hit the eastern seaboard on the weekend of Jan. 7, JetBlue posted a travel waiver online, informing customers in cities that were expected to be affected that they could rebook or cancel their flight free of charge.

The storm ended up brushing the Southeast before dumping significant snow in the Northeast, including 7.2 inches at Boston's Logan Airport, JetBlue's second-largest operational base. In total, JetBlue canceled 230 flights due to the storm.

Such early waivers aren't new to the airline industry, but JetBlue is among the carriers that say they have begun using them more often in recent years, both in an effort to keep customers happy and to ease operational challenges, including passenger rebookings, that disruptive weather events can cause.

"Our goal is to issue waivers to thin our operations in cities that will be impacted as early as possible," said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's executive vice president of customer experience, who added that customers are much happier rescheduling a flight from the comfort of their home or hotel than finding out about a cancellation at the airport.

Joanna Geraghty
Joanna Geraghty

"We really want to give customers the opportunity, particularly those who can be flexible, to take care of that," she said.

While JetBlue's early waivers offer customers the opportunity to either cancel or rebook flights within the same or similar airport pairs free of charge, some other airlines aren't as generous. Delta's early waiver for that Jan. 7 storm, for example, allowed for a free rebooking, but passengers could only cancel their trip free of fees for a flight that was actually canceled or delayed by 90 minutes or more. United and American follow similar protocols.

The airlines also don't employ their full suite of communication tools to notify customers when early waivers are issued.

In interviews, representatives of JetBlue, United and American said that they put the information on their websites and encourage customers whose flights might be impacted by weather to keep themselves informed.

In addition, United reaches out directly to travel agencies about such waivers, spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

As opposed to flight cancellations or delays, carriers don't typically call or email passengers about early waivers, nor do they employ push notifications through their apps.

Still, American spokesman Ross Feinstein said that over the past year the airline has become more proactive in issuing early waivers, including with storms that American might not have deemed worthy of such a waiver in the past. For example, he said, American issued a waiver last summer ahead of anticipated tornado activity in Dallas.

Feinstein said the carrier's shift in policy came early last year, when, as part of its merger with US Airways, it assumed US Airways' functionality to enable customers responding to an early waiver to rebook directly through the American website or app without making a phone call to an agent.

That offering, he said, got its first major test during a storm last January that dumped 28 inches of snow at New York LaGuardia and 18 inches at Washington Reagan National. 

"We have seen a large increase in the number of people taking advantage of it, especially seeing the online interface," Feinstein said of early weather waivers.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the newsletter Airline Weekly, said that, in general, airlines are more geared than in the past toward positioning their fleets for a smooth reset after a storm. One reason for that has been the 2010 rule that calls for fines for tarmac delays of three hours or more.

Such fines can be steep. In December, for example, the DOT fined American $1.6 million for tarmac delays on 27 flights between 2013 and 2015. Twenty of those delays were the result of one snowstorm at its Charlotte hub.

One way to reduce the chance of weather-induced tarmac delays is to cancel more flights early so that planes can be repositioned ahead of time.

But when more flights are canceled, carriers also have more passengers to reassign.

Issuing early travel waivers can make that process more manageable.

"If you wait until the storm hits, by definition, you can't fly earlier, only later," Kaplan said. "If you get people through the system before the storm rolls in, that's good for the airline as well as its passengers."

JetBlue's Geraghty said the ideal lead time for issuing weather waivers is four days. Coupling such a waiver with the strategic cancellation of the proper number of flights is how the carrier works to avoid or limit inconvenience to as many passengers as possible, both during a storm and after one.

"The next day, when the weather clears, customers are much less tolerant of a flight being delayed or canceled," she said. "They are thinking, 'the weather is clear, let's go.'"  

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