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It’s become a staple of winter air travel: the weather waiver.
When extreme winter storms threaten to wreak havoc, causing mass flight cancellations throughout the country, airlines routinely waive change fees so that passengers can alter their flight plans without penalty.
But the need for waivers doesn’t go away once the snow melts. Powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and extreme heat waves cause flyers to seek travel waivers in warm-weather months, as well.
On May 29, 2019, a series of storms throughout the US led to hundreds of flight cancellations and delays. Yet, US-based air carriers announced only two weather waivers that day: one for American Airlines passengers traveling through Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW) and the other for Southwest passengers going through Denver Airport (DIA).
With hurricane season underway, and the potential for more extreme summer weather to come, The Points Guy (TPG) asked: Are airlines more reluctant to grant travel waivers during the summer than they are in the winter?
Why Airlines Issue Waivers
“Airlines only issue waivers when they’ve determined that there is a high probability that the flight will ultimately be canceled,” Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of the consumer group Elliott Advocacy, told TPG in an email. Weather is often the culprit behind waivers, but it’s far from the only one. Airlines have also announced waivers when confronted with possible labor strikes, State Department travel advisories, or natural disasters.
“When airlines issue a waiver for a flight, passengers usually will get an alert telling them what travel dates are affected by the waiver, how long it’s in effect, and which fees the airline is waiving,” Couch-Friedman explained. “Sometimes it’s just the change fee, sometimes it’s the change fee plus the difference in your old and new fares,” she added.
Waivers don’t just benefit customers. Airlines benefit from them, too. “[Waivers] are pretty much put in place to help the airlines mitigate possible large-scale cancellations based on a large event,” aviation expert Kyle Bailey told TPG in an email. The more people who change their flight plans before, say, a major blizzard rolls into town in two days, the fewer people the airlines will have to scramble to reaccommodate after the calamity forces hundreds of flight cancellations.
“It’s better for the airline when passengers rebook or reschedule their flight,” Bailey said.
Cold-Weather Waivers VS. Warm-Weather Waivers
TPG looked at weather-related waivers issued by the big three legacy carriers — United, American and Delta — going back several months. We found that in the five-month period between May and September of 2018, which we used to define as “warm-weather months,” those carriers announced a total of 53 weather waivers for travel in the continental United States, Canada and Mexico.
In contrast, the five-month period between November 2018 and March of this year, our “cold-weather months,” yielded 108 weather waivers throughout the region — more than double the number announced in the warm-weather months.
That hot/cold disparity isn’t too surprising. A polar vortex that slams half the East Coast and most of the Midwest during the winter is going to cause far more trouble with US air travel than a thunderstorm that rolls through Dallas. Unlike summer storms, big winter storms are often predicted days in advance, giving airlines more time to limit travel disruptions by issuing waivers.
Airlines may have another reason for issuing fewer weather waivers in the spring and summer: they simply can’t mess with their super-busy warm-weather travel season. “Waivers only work when airlines have some excess capacity on which to reaccommodate customers who may choose to change their travel plans,” aviation industry expert Bob Mann told TPG in an email. “In winter, that slack may exist. In summer, not so much. And with the unanticipated capacity reductions due to the [Boeing 737] MAX grounding, fuhgeddaboudit.”
Still, Bailey believes that airlines are on the same level when it comes to waivers. “The travel waivers are pretty straightforward,” he said. “I don’t believe the airlines are playing games with the issuance of them,” he added.
Bailey and Couch-Friedman offered the following tips to navigate the world of waivers:
Don’t make your own forecast; give the airlines time to act.
Passengers tend to get in trouble with waivers when they start playing weather forecaster Al Roker. “We often get complaints from passengers who have canceled their flights ahead of a waiver based on their own predictions of a cancellation due to bad weather,” said Couch-Friedman. “This really isn’t a good idea. If you cancel your flight before the airline has issued a waiver or canceled the flight, you’ll be on the hook for the cancellation/change fee.” She suggests waiting for up to an hour before your flight to see what the airlines do before taking any action yourself.
Suppose a bad weather forecast has you so worried about your scheduled flight, you say, “To heck with the change fees!” — and change your flight — only to have the airline announce a waiver right after you made the change and incurred the fees. Hope is not lost — you may still be able to get your fee waived. “A short, polite request to the airline can often do the trick and get the waiver applied post-cancellation,” Couch-Friedman said.
Being nice can also help if the airline hasn’t issued a waiver, but you’re still wary about flying in predicted bad weather. “Individual waivers are possible,” Couch-Friedman explained. “Even if an airline doesn’t issue a general waiver, a concise, friendly request to waive change fees when a terrible snowstorm or hurricane is predicated is often granted. The key is to ask politely.”
Book with airlines directly.
Requesting waivers from an airline can get tricky if you booked your original flight through a third-party website. “I opt for booking with the airlines directly,” Bailey said. “Third-party sites’ hands are tied when it comes to waiving fees. Airlines themselves are more flexible.” Bailey also suggested booking airline tickets with a major credit card for an added layer of protection in case of a fee dispute. “American Express, Chase, etc. are very competitive and customer-service focused,” he said. “For those who don’t have the privilege of booking with a credit card, they might want to purchase travel disruption insurance in extreme cases.”
The Bottom Line
Airlines appear to issue fewer weather waivers in the summer than in the winter. But waivers help airlines and passengers mitigate the travel headaches caused by bad weather, no matter the season. Take advantage of them, but do so smartly. And politely.
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