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Should Travelers Be Compensated in Bad Weather?

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In Europe, travelers stranded by bad weather are entitled to monetary compensation for their troubles, to the tune of hundreds of dollars and, sometimes, paid meals and hotel rooms. These rules don't always apply to weather-related cancellations, but they can, and often do.

Should similar rules be put in place here in the U.S.? That's what USA Today's Gary Stoller is wondering. "From Chicago to New York to Atlanta," Stoller writes, "thousands have been left stranded at snowbound airports or hunkered down in hotels, sometimes for days, having to pay hundreds of dollars more than they'd planned for food and lodging while awaiting booking on another flight to get to their destinations." If this were Europe, he says, those expenses could be covered. Instead, passengers get their refund and often nothing else.

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The flip side is that U.S. airlines almost always waive change fees during severe weather events. This allows passengers to move their flight and avoid the trip to the airport in the first place, effectively giving customers the power to preempt the situation Stoller describes. However, while passengers are spared the $100 to $150 change fees, they may have to pay the difference between the original fare and the rebooked one—potentially hundreds of dollars.

Airlines, of course, say it's unreasonable to punish them when bad weather strikes. "[There were] multihour highway delays with stalled subways and significant disruption to other modes of mass transit" during the last blizzard, Air Transport Association spokesman Dan Castelveter told USA Today. "Is there also a call for compensation from those service providers?" They also claim the added expenses from compensation would necessitate higher fares. Both arguments are more or less true. Airlines don't manifest blizzards out of thin air, and the cost of feeding, sheltering, and compensating thousands of stranded customers every time a snowstorm hits would need to be paid for somehow.

The real problem, of course, is not the weather or even the cancellations, but the customer service. USA Today's Stoller talks to numerous travelers who were not only stranded by cancelled flights, but found little help from the airline: Busy phone lines, broken websites, and a general lack of politeness. Our own Kate Hamman was stranded earlier this week due to the conditions in the Southeast; at one point, she called Delta, and a recorded message instructed her to contact Delta via its Twitter account, then promptly hung up.

Really?

So it seems clear something needs to change. Perhaps the threat of compensation would motivate the airlines to improve their crisis readiness? Maybe travelers just need to chill out and accept that airlines can only do so much when massive storms roll in? What do you think?

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