If there's a God who controls floods and earthquakes, does the deity also have a hand in an airline's mechanical problems?
Apparently so, according to Tucson's most popular airline, which recently added "mechanical difficulties" to the list of acts of God and other events for which the carrier will not be liable if travel is delayed.
Southwest Airlines quietly made the change a few weeks ago, to the puzzlement of some industry analysts.
It appears on page 11 of 32 pages of fine print called a "contract of carriage," which many passengers don't read, but which spells out their recourse in mishaps such as flight interruptions or baggage loss.
Mechanical difficulties - what type is not defined - now appears on a list of events such as wars, riots, storms, earthquakes and other acts of God that are "outside of (Southwest's) control."
In such cases, the contract says, passengers are entitled to refunds only on the used portion of their tickets. Southwest has no obligation to provide compensation for "any type of special, incidential or consequential damages."
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz downplayed the significance of the change.
Mainz said Southwest would continue to assist passengers just as in the past, for example by putting them up in hotels if they are stranded during travel.
Asked why Southwest would change its contract if it doesn't intend to change its practices, Mainz said in an e-mail that the modification was made to "limit our exposure to liability."
Mainz also said the change would make Southwest "more consistent with the industry standard." However, when the Arizona Daily Star reviewed passenger contracts for four other major airlines - Delta, American, Continental and United - none included "mechanical difficulties" as an event outside the carrier's control.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y., called it "surprising" that Southwest, which has a reputation for stellar customer service, would make a change that puts passengers at a legal disadvantage if an aircraft breakdown delays their travel.
Keeping a fleet mechanically sound "is certainly within the control of any airline," Mann said. "Putting mechanical issues in the same category as an act of God - I don't think that's what God intended."
Even if Southwest sticks to its current level of customer aid, Mann said, the new contract wording sets a bad industry precedent.
"While I take Southwest at their word to do the right thing for customers, there are others in the industry who will adopt this on a 'me, too' basis and hold to the letter of that language, really disadvantaging customers on an issue that is absolutely within a carrier's responsibility and control."
Industry analyst Michael Boyd of Evergreen, Colo., agreed other airlines are likely to follow suit.
"The way the industry is today, airlines are sitting around watching each other," he said. "If the other guy does something that makes money and the consumer doesn't revolt, they're going to do it, too."
"I can see (carriers) saying, 'It wasn't our fault the airplane broke down,' and I also can see customers saying, 'I bought a ticket from you and I have reasonable expectation that the airplane is going to work,' " Mann said.
Southwest is the top choice of passengers at Tucson International Airport, used by nearly a third of the 3.6 million travelers who flew into or out of TIA last year.
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.