Stranded, and on Your Own

If an ice storm traps you in an airport, don't expect the airline to coddle you, or compensate you for your lost time.
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You know, I think

Mother Nature

has a really sick sense of humor this year.

Here's the scene.

DFW International Airport

in Dallas, Christmas Eve. I braved the ice and frozen overpasses to pick up a friend flying in from New York.

As I entered the

American Airlines

(AMR)

concourse, I saw before me, huddled in small groups, or sometimes just singly, passengers slumped over in seats. Many of them had spent the night here at the airport -- because of an icy wintry storm that chewed its way through the South yesterday, and dumped snow on the East Coast.

The scene was nothing short of pitiful. There was one man in a business suit, curled up in a chair much too small for his large frame, his laptop and his briefcase safely tucked up under his arm, and his overcoat pulled up somewhat over his head. Next to him on the floor was a

Barneys

shopping bag with a brightly colored gift inside.

Over in the other corner, two college seniors, Ann Gillette and Mary Latham, both traveling to Boston, were sitting across from one another playing hearts on the floor of the waiting area.

"Oh, what can you do about it? We saw one woman just scream and cry herself silly last night. Saw someone else kick the side of the desk at the gate and yell at the gate agent. But hey, it's not the airline's fault," Gillette said as she scooped up two cards from the floor.

She was tough -- and right: It was the weather that caused passengers to sleep at the airport. And it was the weather that will make these passengers very late in getting home.

But when weather is the cause of the delay, are passengers entitled to any type of compensation?

The answer, of course, is no. The airlines throw their hands up when it comes to Mother Nature.

Unlike a situation where an airline has a mechanical problem, or a scheduling problem of some type, weather-related problems fall into that all-inclusive category called "acts of God."

What about those regulations concerning minimum payments that the airline must make to passengers when they don't reach their destination in time? None of them apply when it comes to weather-related delays or cancellations.

Jim Brown, director of media relations for

TWA

(TWA)

, an airline that sees a fair amount of weather-related problems with its hub in St. Louis, said that while airlines are not obligated to do things for passengers stranded by bad weather, they often go the extra mile. "TWA will often provide hotels, food vouchers or guarantee rebooking on other airlines for passengers who are stranded," Brown said.

Brown then recalled what was the most unusual instance he had been involved in concerning an airline and winter weather.

He recalled that in the late 1980s, when he was with American Airlines, one ice storm hit DFW so fast that the airline found itself with about 40 planes on the ground that were not going to go anywhere all night. These planes also happened to be full of passengers.

The airline decided that instead of pulling the passengers off the planes it would turn the aircraft into mini-hotels. Brown laughed as he recalled how the planes were filled with food and beverages, how extra blankets and pillows were rustled up, and how the planes were all hooked into the airport's heating supply.

"Hotel American -- it was something," Brown said.

Our friend arrived from New York only one hour late, so we left DFW feeling very lucky.

We also left wondering just what was in that stranded Barneys bag!

Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site, at

www.planebusiness.com

.