Airlines and Airports Handled the Northeast Storm Well . . . Seriously

Happy New Year, everyone. Hopefully the last of you who were stranded after winter storms hit Europe and then the Northeast have finally made it back home. Now, the post-mortem begins. How did so many people get stranded and have such miserable holidays? Plenty of blame is already going around with many predictably pointing fingers at airlines and airports. But let’s be realistic here. As I wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last week, these types of situations are always going to happen no matter how well you prepare.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly going to be lessons learned from these storms. There always are, and they will Ice Cube on Heathrowhelp to make things run better in the future. But they are never going eliminate the pain that was felt in the last couple of weeks. These storms, especially the one in the Northeast, were not your normal storms. Normal storms are like the ones that raced through Denver, Minneapolis, and even Chicago last week without causing anything like the issues we saw in the Northeast and Europe. Though I suppose we should differentiate between the European storms and the Northeast storms because there was a big difference.

In Europe, they actually saw very little snow fall but then it melted and froze into ice. They just couldn’t get it cleared, so I actually think there is more blame to go around over there. I’m going to wait to get more info before diving further into that. But in the Northeast, they measured snowfall in feet. Combine that with high winds and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. That one was made far worse by the fact that the storm occurred during the busy holiday season. Had it happened in early December or mid-January, it would have been far easier to get all the people out of town because there’s just less demand at that time.

Since it happened in late December, it really became the perfect storm. You have planes packed full because of the holidays and you have a massive snow event that starts in the South and creeps up the coast, screwing up air traffic all along the way. So what could have been done better?

When the snow was coming down, it would have been virtually impossible to keep the runways clear and safe for any period of time at an airport like JFK. There’s nothing that you can do in a situation like that. You just have to wait for it to stop. But once it stops, then what?

Could JFK have had 100 extra snowplows ready to go above and beyond what the existing fleet already was doing? Yeah, but those plows don’t come cheap and they require operators, and that would mean higher costs to the airlines using the airport and ultimately higher costs for the traveler. And then those plows would just sit unused for 99 percent of the time. No business is programmed to be able to operate under a worst case scenario when a “storm of the decade” hits. It’s just not possible, especially in a low margin business like this one.

And what about the airlines? Could they have operated more flights and pressed more airplanes into service? Well they did operate more flights when they could and they were able to use larger airplanes in limited circumstances, but at this time of year the demand is so high for travel that the fleet is already pushed toward the edge of its capabilities. Should they have a fleet of 100 airplanes just sitting around to get people out after a storm? Oh please. That would add so much cost to operating an airline that they might as well just shut down.

If you want to place blame on anyone for the number of canceled flights and disruptions, then you should look no further than the Department of Transportation and Secretary Ray LaHood. That tarmac delay rule that everyone loves so much did nothing but encourage airlines to cancel flights. You’ll notice that domestic airlines seem to not have had any 3 hour delays but instead they had mass cancels unlike what might have happened before the rule. Foreign airlines, which do not fall under the rule today, sent airplanes and had them sit on the ground for hours and hours before they could get people off.

As you would expect, this is getting the attention of all the pro-rule people who are pushing for the rule to extend to international airlines. It’s too bad that will only make the problem worse. There are a bunch of issues when international flights are involved. Beyond just getting to the gate, you have to have a bunch of customs and immigration people come in to process the passengers. It was tough for people to get into the airport with that much snow. But the biggest problem is often the length of lead-time required.

We were helping some people at Cranky Concierge who sat on the ground for awhile at JFK. One was on a flight that was already canceled and rescheduled for a day later in Amman due to bad weather. Had the flight not been able to go this time, it likely would have canceled again and a lot of people would have had to wait longer to get a seat out of Amman. When the flight left Amman, the expectation was that JFK would be up and running again hours before the airplane arrived. That wasn’t the case because the weather turned out to have a significantly greater impact than predicted.

If the rule goes into effect for international flights, those flights will likely just cancel as a precaution instead of risking the massive fines the DOT has proposed. And if you ask the people on those airplanes, I bet most would rather sit on the ramp than not get to the US for days. (Our client felt that way.)

So how could things improve? I’m sure there’s something around international flights that can be changed so that the ramp delays aren’t so extreme. But I don’t know details of exactly what happened yet so it’s hard to know exactly what that might be.

I keep hearing about communication being an issue for a lot of people, and that is where I hope the airlines can focus the most. The airlines have done a good job of getting people to use their online tools, but those only go so far. (Though I do have to give Delta huge kudos for that @DeltaAssist Twitter account. Those guys do great work over there.) The problem is still disseminating information as quickly as possible and that’s not easy.

There are a lot of factors that change when it comes to keeping flight status information up to date. The weather changes, the airports update what runways are open and when, and then the airlines still get hit by surprise mechanicals or crew staffing issues. (If crews get stuck in the snow and can’t get the airport, you’ve got a problem.) So it’s going to be impossible to have perfect info, but I wish the airlines would be more willing to divulge the imperfect info they have. That opens up a ton of other problems (incorrect info makes people miss flights), but people would rather not be kept in the dark.

Other than that, I think the airlines and airports did a decent job of handling the storm of the decade considering everything working against them. That’s not conventional wisdom, for sure, but knowing the complexity of handling something like this, I’m not sure how it could have been handled better.

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