How Does an Accident Impact an Airline’s Schedule? (Ask Cranky)

Today we’ve got an interesting Ask Cranky question from a curious reader . . .

Hey Cranky,

I read your column regularly and had a question you might be able to answer. What does an airline do to make up the capacity when a plane crashes? How do they operate minus a plane that would otherwise be zooming around earth full of people? With the spate of crashes lately I was curious how they plug the hole so to speak.

Cheers!
Robert

That’s a great question, and it’s one that a lot of people probably don’t think about. There are, of course a lot of factors involved in determining what happens to a schedule. First and foremost, it depends how much the fleet is scheduled before the accident. Larger airlines have spare aircraft in the fleet, so they can usually fill the hole, so to speak, fairly easily. Smaller airlines would have more trouble. I decided to turn to a couple airlines to see what they had to say about it.

First up, I asked Southwest. Now, you may not think of Southwest when it comes to losing an airplane, because they have a pretty clean record. You probably will remember, however, the 737 that ran off the runway in Burbank a few years back or of course, the one that ran off the runway at Chicago/Midway in the snow. Those airplanes weren’t about to re-enter service quickly, so this is an issue that affects more than just those who suffer through a catastrophic accident.

According to Southwest . . .

We generally have enough slack in our schedule to cover routes via aircraft swaps. Otherwise, a lease on an aircraft may be extended or an aircraft that may have been previously available for a charter could be reassigned. With over 530 aircraft in our fleet, there are a lot of options.

I also asked US Airways, which had the now-famous water landing of an A320 back in January. That plane also wasn’t about to return to service anytime soon. US Airways told me . . .

The short answer is there was enough slack in the system as we had already reduced capacity YOY for Jan. vs. 08 and were in the process of reducing system capacity even further (for 09 over 08).

So, like most airlines, they’ve been cutting back significantly so there is more fleet flexibility. You can see how for some airlines, it would be such an easy task. For smaller airlines, however, it would be much harder to cover the existing schedule. That means they would either have to cut back or look to lease in a new airplane to help plug the holes.

20 Responses to How Does an Accident Impact an Airline’s Schedule? (Ask Cranky)

  1. Benji says:

    I’ve actually thought about this, too, LOL… Here’s a tangentially-related question, or rather, suggestion for a post: severe turbulence such as what that Continental jet experienced… frequency, likelihood of causing a catastrophic event, how planes are equipped to fly through that crud (or not, see also the Air France crash off Brazil)…

  2. CF says:

    Benji wrote:

    severe turbulence such as what that Continental jet experienced… frequency, likelihood of causing a catastrophic event, how planes are equipped to fly through that crud (or not, see also the Air France crash off Brazil)…

    It’s incredibly unlikely that severe turbulence could bring down an airplane at cruise altitude these days, especially considering the weather radar that’s out there now. In the past, airplanes have flown into severe storms and not made it out. Braniff 352 is a good example of that. But superior weather radar combined with better aircraft technology means that it just doesn’t happen.

    If you’re on takeoff or landing, certainly turbulence can have more of an impact. Windshear, in particular, has brought down many an airplane so low to the ground that they didn’t have time to recover. But at cruise, the mere shaking of an airplane won’t do anything unless it’s so strong that it somehow rips a wing off.

    The Air France accident is a very curious one. The airplane is believed to have gone down intact, so extreme turbulence that ripped a wing off isn’t possible. It’s really hard to think about how that plane could have been brought down by turbulence alone.

  3. David SFeastbay says:

    This question is no different then when a weather delay slows things down or shuts an airport down all together. Keeping a schedule in non-weather related markets going can be tough. It’s not as simple as just sending a plane to another city instead of to the shut down city. Playing catch up is hard to do and can take days for work out. A plane crash almost sounds like an easy fix.

    Here’s a question for you Mister Cranky. Some time ago AA said out of ORD they would use planes just to/from ORD to easy problems for any weather or mechanical delays. This way a weather problem in the upper midwest region wouldn’t have a ripple effect on flights say in the southwest. Keeping planes only to/from ORD could keep a normal schedule in other regions not having bad weather. It made sense, so I was wondering if you knew if they are still doing that and if it has worked out for them.

  4. Andrew says:

    I thought about this after the AF447 crash. Yes larger airlines have plenty of flexibility for the most part, but what about the long-haul aircraft? Most airlines in the US have a limited number of planes that can fly the longer routes.

    I’m usually focused on Continental so I’ll use them as an example.

    Let’s say the flight from Newark to Hong Kong crashes in the the north pole. Obviously that plane is not going to be available for use. There are only a total of 20 aircraft in the fleet that can fly the route and most of them are already on longer routes (IAH-NRT; EWR-HKG, PVG, PEK, NRT, DEL, BOM, TLV) but there are a few that are just used on shorter routes such as LHR.

    So how would Continental take care of this? Would they pull a 777 off of a Europe route and replace it with a 757?

  5. CF says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    This question is no different then when a weather delay slows things down or shuts an airport down all together.

    This is actually completely different. That’s a short term issue but this question is around what you do in the longer term. When an airplane goes down for a short time, there are always plans for recovery. But if you lose an airplane for good, then different decisions need to be made.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    Here’s a question for you Mister Cranky. Some time ago AA said out of ORD they would use planes just to/from ORD to easy problems for any weather or mechanical delays. This way a weather problem in the upper midwest region wouldn’t have a ripple effect on flights say in the southwest. Keeping planes only to/from ORD could keep a normal schedule in other regions not having bad weather. It made sense, so I was wondering if you knew if they are still doing that and if it has worked out for them.

    Yes, as far as I know they still do that. For example, you won’t see an MD-80 touch Miami. Most of them are focused in Chicago. You also don’t see a ton of 737s in Chicago – they spend most of their time down south. There’s a tradeoff with this kind of thing. You gain operational integrity during bad weather but you also lose flexibility and potentially have to reduce your utilization. But for American, they were running into too many specific hub problems so they found this to be worthwhile.

    Andrew wrote:

    So how would Continental take care of this? Would they pull a 777 off of a Europe route and replace it with a 757?

    I actually tried to get Continental’s comment for this piece, but they never returned my calls. Grumble, grumble, and all that. But I’m sure that Continental has some spare capacity out there and could reshuffle as necessary. It’s entirely possible that they have a 767 that could be put on to the London route or even a 757. It would be an issue of trying to decide which routes are most profitable. If that London route was consistently full and profitable while, say, a Tokyo flight wasn’t, they might just kill off a Tokyo flight. But since Continental didn’t call me back, I can’t give you a specific answer.

  6. Cranky, What I find most disturbing is that you expect N106US to fly again.. I’m pretty sure at best it’ll be tin cans in the future. And maybe spare parts for non-operational/safety items. (e.g. lights, air vents, etc.)

  7. Wyldkrd says:

    There are enough planes sitting in Mohave CA, Marana, Goodyear and Kingman AZ to fill any schedule holes…

    I believe wet leases are also possible but not necessarily profitable.

  8. CF says:

    @ Nicholas Barnard:
    Fair enough – that plane probably won’t fly again but it isn’t unprecedented. There have been some pretty roughed up airplanes that flew again, including Qantas flight 1 in Bangkok 10 years ago.

    @ Wyldkrd:
    Very true – if they wanted to replace the plane they could. The wet lease option is a good shorter term option until a more permanent replacement could be found.

  9. Bruce Konditi says:

    Most Large Airlines have aircraft in storage somewhere. These are usually older planes that have been replaced by newer models. These are mainly stored in the US southwestern desert areas where the dry air allows them to sit outside with little corrosion. When the need arises, they can be activated and brought back into service.

    Airliners can also be leased from leasing companies: Just the plane, or ACMI ( aircraft/crew/maintenance/insurance). It only takes hours to get a plane on your route again.

    As for turbulence, A thunderstorm can bring down ANY airplane. Winds can blow at tremendous speeds within these storms, and as suspected in AF447, losing airspeed/flight data in the dark over water in violent winds is not good. That’s why planes have radar to avoid these storms.

    Let’s hope this never happens (again)

  10. Tyler says:

    Here’s another question for you while you seem to be answering a number of random ones:
    What does an airline do with a plane like the one that landed on the Hudson? Presumably it sank to the bottom of the river and they had to fish it out somehow. Would they ever put that plane back into service? I assume that the bird strike damage could be repaired or the engines could be replaced. How much damage does it take to “total” an airplane?

  11. Tyler, totaling an airplane is done the same way you decide to total a car, what is the cost to fix, vs. what is the total value. If the former is greater than the latter it is totaled, if not they fix it.

    I think in some instances the FAA requires that an airplane be totaled..

  12. CF says:

    @ Tyler:
    As Nicholas says, it’s a decision on costs, but that is rarely if ever the decision of the airline. It’s the insurance company that decides how to proceed.

  13. CF wrote:

    @ Tyler:
    As Nicholas says, it’s a decision on costs, but that is rarely if ever the decision of the airline. It’s the insurance company that decides how to proceed.

    Although sometimes the insurance company and the airline are under the same management. This is called a Captive Insurance company. USAirways had one at one point, and may still have one.

  14. David SFeastbay says:

    Just because a plane has what looks like a bad accident, doesn’t mean it can’t be repaired and still remain in service.

    Let’s remember the August 29, 1969 TWA hijacking of a Rome-Athens-Tel Aviv B707. The plane was taken to Syria where the passengers were removed and the hijacker blew the nose off the 707. Boeing replaced the nose section and the plane went back into service for another 12 years until it was sold to the US Air Force for parts.

    So if the front of a plane can be blown off, repaired, and remain in service for 12 more years, then anything is possible.

  15. ILFC and other large leasing companies will provide aircraft and aircrew, or even another airline can lease the same, if it is short term say weeks then the aircraft is just put into service, if it is needed longer (months) then it will be painted and refurbished enroute, in some cases if the old hull is a write off they will just continue the lease for an extended period until it is replaced..most small LCC carriers do this for servicing and down periods anyway..
    If you want secondhand then you could go and kick some tyres in Arizona Desert, I’m sure there is a spare B737/757/747 sitting on the sand with your name on it…

  16. Stephen Dutton wrote:

    if it is needed longer (months) then it will be painted and refurbished enroute

    Thats gotta be a job. I don’t want to be the guy who has to paint that plane while its flying, or replace an engine at 30,000 feet…

  17. Johnny Jet says:

    Hey Cranky – is Air France still flying GIG to CDG? And if so, what type of aircraft

  18. David SFeastbay says:

    @ Johnny Jet:

    Johnny depending on the day of the week they offer one or two nonstops. AF443 is a 747-400 (operates daily) and AF445 is an A330-200.

  19. Meghan Porter says:

    I agree that a lot of people wouldn’t think about this when an airplane accident occurs and how the airline must make up for the loss. But after I read Robert’s question, I wondered why I hadn’t thought about this before, but I found the answer very satisfying!

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