Airlines commit to pay for hotel, meals for some flight cancellations

Policy changes follow DOT vow “challenging” carriers to improve service



Delta Air Lines and other carriers are committing to pay for hotel and food expenses for some passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed by three hours or more, as the federal government pushes airlines to improve how they treat customers during flight disruptions.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to airlines two weeks ago “challenging” them to improve their customer service plans. He pledged to post an interactive dashboard before Labor Day showing what consumer are entitled to from airlines when their flights are canceled or significantly delayed due to circumstances within the airline’s control.

The steps come as the airline industry emerges from a brutal summer travel season marred by flight disruptions, cancellations and staffing shortages.

The new DOT dashboard posted Thursday shows that most major U.S. airlines have committed in writing to customer service improvements, including for meal vouchers and hotel expenses, federal officials said.

“Passengers deserve transparency and clarity on what to expect from an airline when there is a cancelation or disruption,” Buttigieg said in a written statement.

When a flight is canceled or significantly delayed for reasons within Delta’s control, the Atlanta-based airline now commits to rebook customers on the next available flight, or, if necessary, rebook on flights operated by another airline that it has a ticketing agreement with at no additional cost.

It also says when a flight is canceled or significantly delayed for reasons within Delta’s control and passengers are stuck overnight away from home or their destination, it will provide complimentary hotel accommodations at Delta-contracted facilities when available and ground transportation to and from the hotel, or reimburse reasonable costs for a hotel room and ground transportation. Delta also said it will provide a meal or meal vouchers if such a cancellation or delay results a delay of at least three hours.

If customers believe an airline is not fulfilling its customer service commitment, they can file a complaint with the DOT. The DOT said it can enforce what’s in an airline’s customer service plan.


The new commitment doesn’t mean that most passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled will get hotel and food expenses covered.

There are a number of large caveats. For one, Delta’s new customer service commitment applies mainly for passengers stranded overnight during a connection.

Airlines attribute most of their flight delays to causes beyond their control, such as late-arriving aircraft or the national aviation system. Delta’s contract of carriage also has a force majeure or act of God clause that specifies it is not liable if a cancellation, diversion or delay was due to weather conditions, shortages of labor or facilities and other factors including “any other condition beyond Delta’s control or any fact not reasonably foreseen by Delta.”

In the first six months of the year, about 24% of airline flights did not arrive on time. Of those, only about a third of the delays were attributed to a cause within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading or fueling.

About 7% of flights were attributed to late-arriving aircraft. About 5% were attributed to air traffic control, heavy traffic, airport operations, “non-extreme weather” or other delays related to the national aviation system.

Delays due to extreme weather made up less than 1%. About 3.2% of flights were canceled altogether.

‘Failed their customers’

Airlines continue to face increasing pressure from government officials and others to improve their treatment of travelers.

On Wednesday, attorneys general from 36 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam wrote a letter to Congressional leaders saying “the airline industry has failed their customers.”

The letter said their offices have received “thousands of complaints from outraged airline passengers about airline customer service — including about systematic failures to provide required credits to those who lost travel opportunities during the pandemic.”

Georgia’s attorney general did not sign the letter.

The letter also said because responsibility for airline consumer protection falls under the federal government, they have relayed complaints to the U.S. DOT, but the DOT “has thus far failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse in these cases.”

“This vacuum of oversight allows airlines to mistreat consumers and leaves consumers without effective redress,” the letter said.

The AGs urged Congress to pass legislation to authorize state attorneys general to enforce consumer protection laws governing airlines.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote an Aug. 29 letter to Buttigieg outlining what the airline has done to improve its service.

“When passengers are inconvenienced, they deserve clear and transparent information and updates, as well as details about steps we’re taking to make things right,” he wrote.

Bastian said since the beginning of 2020, Delta has refunded $6 billion for 11 million tickets from flights canceled by Delta or that had a significant change in schedule.

But customers who decide to cancel their trips are not necessarily entitled to refunds. For flights originating in North America other than basic economy tickets, customers who cancel before departure can get flight credits.

Delta said it offers more flexibility in certain circumstances, and it deposited an extra 10,000 miles into the accounts of its SkyMiles frequent fliers whose flights were disrupted between May 1 and July 7, when mass cancellations inconvenienced tens of thousands of passengers.

The airline said it has since improved its operations, with fewer cancellations in August. Delta said it now has 91% of the active pilots it had in 2019, while operating about 86% of the departures as it had in 2019.

Excerpt from Delta’s previous customer commitment:

“We will provide hotel accommodations at Delta contracted facilities, based on availability, if you are inconvenienced overnight while away from your home or destination due to a delay, misconnect or cancellation within Delta’s control. If accommodations are unavailable, we will compensate you with a transportation credit commensurate in value with the contracted hotel rate up to $100.”


Excerpt from Delta’s new customer commitment as of Aug. 29, 2022:

“When a delay, misconnect, or cancellation is within Delta’s control, we will: Provide complimentary hotel accommodations at Delta-contracted facilities, based on availability, as well as complimentary ground transportation to and from the hotel, if you are inconvenienced overnight while away from your home or destination. If a Delta-contracted hotel accommodation is unavailable and you book your own accommodations while inconvenienced overnight away from your home or destination, Delta will reimburse reasonable costs for your hotel room and ground transportation to and from the hotel. If accommodations are unavailable, we will compensate you with a credit commensurate in value with the Delta-contracted hotel rate. Provide a meal or meal vouchers, if a cancellation or delay results in waiting 3 or more hours beyond the scheduled departure time.”