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.


32 Responses to Airlines and Airports Handled the Northeast Storm Well . . . Seriously

  1. nick says:

    Here’s an interesting article about snow sweeping at Stockholm-Arlanda Airport: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/europe/101229/arlanda-stockholm-sweden-snow?page=0,0

    • CF says:

      Good article, but I think there are some big differences between Stockholm and London.

      1) Yes, it’s colder this year than in year’s past but Stockholm consistently gets large amounts of snow and London does not so it makes sense for Stockholm to be more prepared.

      2) Heathrow is far busier than Stockholm, so there is more downtime on the Stockholm runways. (Stockholm also has three runways vs two at Heathrow.)

  2. David Z says:

    That opens up a ton of other problems (incorrect info makes people miss flights

    Yup, and some folks just aren’t prepared to accept that reality bites sometimes. Can’t please everyone, and you just do what you can under the circumstances even if it’s ever enough for some folks.

    It’d be somewhat an interesting “test” to see how, in the long run, people would “behave” towards an airline when told of things they probably don’t want to hear, but is nonetheless truthful. But more importantly, what airlines are (at least) trying to do moving forward.

    Good luck to everybody.

  3. > Should they have a fleet of 100 airplanes just
    > sitting around to get people out after a storm? Oh please.

    No, but the gov’t could offer their surplus capacity in these situations to the airlines… either as a “wet lease” or other similar arrangement for a few days. I bet the gov’t has a lot of extra planes which aren’t getting a lot of use during holiday periods like this one: a C17 configured with seats in it might not be the prettiest way between two cities, but it’d get you there in a pinch…

    • Bob says:

      That’s unlikely at best. The Government does, from time to time, lease aircraft (usually back to the builders for demonstration purposes at air shows). But those events are scheduled years in advance, and the lease must be approved by the Department secretary. Also, the builder must provide pilots, ground crew, fuel and proof of insurance for the full cost of the replacement aircraft.

      One more thing: The “consideration” required by law is that the demonstration will bring in foreign military sales which reduce the costs to the US taxpayer. I’m assuming that the airlines would have to pay cash, with agreed upon prices. That concept would be on shaky legal ground, since the Government isn’t supposed to compete with private leasing firms.

    • Frank says:

      100 aircraft?………..just the tip of the iceberg. Some SEVEN THOUSAND flights were cancelled. I hardly think the govt could arrange the scheduling and movement of 100,000 passengers to hundreds of destinations.
      The flying public has been lucky. I dont remember a Xmas storm like this in many, many years, perhaps 2 decades.
      I completely agree with your article (did H*ll just freeze over?) because you give rational explanations to many of the issues, some within the airline’s control and some without. Cost being a major player. Communication was blasted in the media. Of course it was. On any given day, a legacy carrier has approx. 200,000 passengers traveling. The Reservation lines were overwhelmed. How do you schedule a Reservation Center for storms? Anyone? Schedules are done weeks to months in advance. That said, the airlines communicate with you in many ways these days. And, most importantly, allow you to reschedule in a storm instead of requiring you to travel on the days you booked.
      Americans “expect” instant gratification, instant results, instant service. As always, MOTHER NATURE and her several FEET OF SNOW showed that even technology cant outplay her.
      It’s interesting, I worked the holidays in the first time in almost 20 years. Wanted a great schedule for the entire month, instead of just having the holiday off. My flights were ON TIME, well most of them!! I even non-revenued on another airline and got on.
      Sadly, People missed the holidays. The MEDIA loves to blame the airlines for everything and the FLYING PUBLIC feeds off that negativity.
      Yes, the aviation system handled this BLIZZARD, well.

      • From a system standpoint they could allow fee-less rebooking and cancellations via their websites. They’ve started to make baby steps in this direction, but it seems they’ve got a longer way to go.

        Of course this brings up the question of ensuring that those websites stay up. If I were in an airline’s it department I’d insist that that portion of the system either be massively over designed capacity wise, or require that it be hosted in the cloud (such as on Amazon’s EC2) so that they could bring on more servers if they needed it.

  4. Nimitz says:

    happy new year cranky! first rate ice cube reference. though i think it’s – cause icy runways IS bad for your health.

  5. Fifty snow plows per runway……..Have extra planes sitting around for cases like this…..

    That is exactly what people will be saying or had been saying during the ordeal. And those comments make the news and get people all worked up instead of reporting that there are just times that mother nature will have her way no matter what.

    Funny how the people that complain the most about airlines and airports at times like this are the ones who can’t handle getting their two kids to after school events that start at the same time in two different places. But some how they think it’s easy to move one million people at the same time when the weather turns bad.

  6. MeanMeosh says:

    “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.”

    Alas, Cranky, while I now tend to agree with you that the rule is causing additional cancellations based on the evidence so far, trying to argue with the pro-rule crowd is about like trying to argue with those who believe in man-made global warming. In other words, everything proves it, nothing disproves it, and any evidence proffered that doesn’t fit the prearranged outcome is dismissed as propaganda by shills for big business. In the case of the tarmac delay rule, you’re already seeing spin by the Consumer Travel Alliance, one of the pro-rule groups, that extra pre-cancellations shows that the rule is working, because people would rather have the “certainty” of a cancellation as opposed to the “uncertainty” of when your flight might take off. Maybe if the cancellation occurs before you leave home, and just end up sitting at home with a canceled vacation, it isn’t so bad. But seriously – being stuck in an airport terminal or connecting city for a week, at your own expense, over sitting on a taxiway for a few hours is an improvement?

  7. Bob says:

    May God help us all when proposals from populist politicians finally get voted on. They’ll try to fix things, but will only make them worse, while getting a lot of media attention (see: tarmac delay rule referenced).

  8. Bobber says:

    LHR sinks further as a national abomination, serving only to be a cash cow to it’s Spanish owners.

    I heard both BA and Virgin were shite at dealing with the Northeast storm as well – my mate had BOS-LHR cancelled on the 23, 27, and 2nd Jan with Virgin.

  9. Roger says:

    Just to be clear. Although people like yourself think the 3 hour delay rule is bad, there are some of us who think it is a wonderful thing. When the demand for airport capacity exceeds availability (such as during these events) something has to give. Building up a many hour backlog is not a good thing, especially as passengers would have no recourse (eg you couldn’t decide to get off and take an alternate means of travel).

    Since the rules apply to all airlines equally (ignoring international) it means there is a level playing ground – eg one airline can’t decide on a 4 hour cutoff for competitive reasons.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      Roger, you make a valid argument, but with all due respect, you’re missing the point of the dissent from those that don’t like the tarmac delay rule. While you argue that a one-size-fits-all rule creates a level playing field and eliminates confusion, I would argue that such a one-size-fits-all rule ignores the reality that not all tarmac delays are created equal, and the draconian penalties associated with the rule may cause unintended yet severe consequences for innocent travelers. Should airlines be held accountable for multi-hour delays where passengers aren’t provided food and water? Absolutely. But the alternative is that airlines pre-cancel flights during bad weather, resulting in more people being stuck in connecting cities for days, all at their own expense, because the airlines owe you nothing during weather delays. If the plane could have taken off in 3 hours and 20 minutes, is getting stuck for three days really a better outcome?

      Also, not all tarmac delays are the airlines’ fault. What about tarmac delays caused by ATC, airport ground crew error, etc.? As it is, if ATC or the airports cause a delay exceeding three hours, they have zero accountability, yet a 737 with 130 people onboard is subject to a $3.5 million fine. If you applied the rule to international flights, CX would be subject to something like a $7 million fine, and probably would have diverted and dumped their passengers at another airport, telling them that they were on their own to get to NYC. Meanwhile, if it turns out the airport or customs & immigration contributed to the delay, they owe nothing to anybody. How is that fair?

      My point – there needs to be some common sense and flexibility with the rules, and the government also needs to be held accountable if a delay is caused by their actions.

    • Jimmbbo says:

      The solution is not more onerous, short sighted and capricious legislation… the solution is more runways….

      Each new bit of legislation comes with an unofficial addendum, the “Law of Uninteded Consequences”, and the tarmac rule is no exception.

      Airlines make money when the airplanes FLY… There is NO upside for them to be on the ramp. If they’re sitting on the ground, it’s a losing situation for everyone – terrible PR, lost revenue, increased expenses for the airline, and a mob of pissed off pax. So, they CANCEL flights instead of running the risk of THOUSANDS of dollars in fines, creating MORE angry passengers… Where’s the sunshine there?

      Air traffic continues to grow wildly, with fares that allow anyone with a hundred bucks to fly and we haven’t built a new major airport to handle even a small part of it… we have a CONCRETE problem, not a legislation problem.

  10. Ginger says:

    I think you brown nose for those added flyer miles! How can one person judge so much area, and be in one place? So sad you report only the good things you THINK are good!!!

  11. Jimmbbo says:

    Weather happens… sometimes REALLY BAD weather happens… This discussion goes back to church building… do you build your church for Easter Sunday or the rest of the year….

    We could build an air transportation system that could handle any weather Ma Nature tosses our way, but how will we pay for it? Maybe a $10000 JFK-LAX coach ticket? Uh huh… that’ll trash ridership in a hurry… no more congestion, no weather problem!

    Just like the tragedy of the “Perfect Storm” made famous in cinema, Mother Nature still holds all the trump cards… To paraphrase the famous T-shirt, sometimes sh*t just happens and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    One other item… why is the focus on being a VICTIM and BLAMING someone/anyone (sh*t happens)? I reckon that makes folks feel better, but has yet to SOLVE a problem, and fear of being blamed keeps people (ESPECIALLY bureaucrats) from proactively SOLVING problems… Wouldn’t that energy be better spent with constructive comments and discussion?

  12. Sanjeev M says:

    Well, maybe if we had some decent train service here in the US, then our flight delays wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

  13. Cranky – I basically agree with you, but have a couple of issues.

    Some of the seriously long delays (more than 10 hours) disembarking passengers at JFK from international flights have been reported to be due to lack of customs and border patrol staff. While I appreciate CBP staff too have homes and families to return to, I struggle with the idea that they can just close up and leave so many people stranded – especially given the passengers are not allowed to enter the country until processed. I’m waiting with interest for an official response to this.

    At some UK airports, the problems have been compounded by cost cutting over many years. The snow that fell wasn’t extraordinary – indeed has been an annual occurrence lately. But the airports are happy to put profits ahead of passengers by not stocking enough equipment & supplies to deal with snow. That BAA, owner of London Heathrow, turned down government offers of help defies belief – an incredibly stupid move which will have consequences due to the politics of the situation.

    • CF says:

      On the CBP piece, yeah, that could be a real issue but that’s neither the airline nor the airport. That’s the federal government.

      And yeah, I sort of laid off the UK airports here because I think there was a lot more going on. I’m going to try to dig in more on Heathrow over the next month and see if I can get any more info on what the heck is going on at that place.

  14. I think its quite interesting that initially they (the media?) said it was going to take weeks to clear up the backlog, then the airlines got people to where they wanted to go pretty quickly. Kudos to them for their hard work getting that taken care of.

  15. Oliver says:

    From what I hear/read, Continental was more or less unreachable via the phone for several days last week.

  16. malbarda says:

    I agree with Cranky: weather happens, and sometimes freak weather will happen. But in the case of Heathrow, the airport operator certainly seems to be at least partially to blame:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12049482

    Quote: “Heathrow’s “snow fleet” is made up of 69 vehicles; Gatwick’s is a reported 150.”

    Amsterdam had 3,000 field beds for stranded passengers and kept at least one runway going throughout most of the weather. The stranded pax were supposed to be on planes that never made it to TO AMS from their destination. So AMS was not so much the problem, as it was the airports serving AMS.

    Hopefully lessons learned indeed…

  17. Happy New Year, Cranky! I travelled two days later than the big snowstorms in the Northeast. I was lucky.

  18. AS says:

    I agree with about 80% of this article. I disagree with the criticism of the 3-hour-rule. We know that Cranky doesn’t like the rule, but the criticism is emotional not factual. To quote, “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.”

    “What might have happened” is hardly evidence, it’s a criticism based on a standing bias against this rule. And the facts probably don’t bear this out.

    They closed the NY airports. All of them. And they changed the re-open time at least 3 times, from 8am, to 1pm, to 4/5/6pm. Just so we’re clear: *They closed the airports.* 3-hour rule or not, all those flights would have canceled. That’s all flights from ~6pm Sunday to ~6pm Monday at JFK, and comparably at LGA and EWR. And inbounds that would have run into closed airports en-route.

    The only flights that should be attributed to ‘canceled due to the 3-hour rule’ are those that were cancelled on Sunday before the airports were closed, that had a reasonable shot of getting in-flight based on conditions in NYC and to/at their destination, and inbound flights meeting the same criteria. That number will be FAR lower.

    I’m personally disappointed at how few flights got back into gear Monday evening after the airports reopened, but I’m not familiar with the logistical issues of getting staff to airports, de-icing, runway availability etc. Cranky addresses this point with the ‘extra snowplows’ and ‘extra planes’ point though.

    And, personally speaking, I think the pre-emptive cancellations were better than wasting time at the airport. Yes I got delayed 2 days, but I got to do it on my terms and get productive time out of it, rather than be stuck in an airport or airplane with the uncertainty and discomfort. No-one was getting in or out of NYC for ~24 hours and it was much better to do it remotely via web/phone than in a stressed, crowded, loud terminal with everyone getting more and more upset.

    • CF says:

      Until the airlines start directly reporting which flights were canceled due to the 3 hour rule, we’ll never be able to prove for certain that the increase is attributable directly to the rule. That being said, I have no doubt that more flights were canceled in this storm than would have been without the rule. Yes, the airports were closed for awhile, and I’m not trying to say those were canceled because of the rule (I mean, come on). But looking at flights before, I bet we’ll see a heavier cancel rate when all is said and done.

      Specifically pointing to your last paragraph, you’re forgetting about a third option. The airlines all had waivers allowing people to change flights without penalty. So they could have operated more flights and those people who really wanted to get out could have. You, on the other hand, could have changed your flight and stayed home. That’s a situation where everyone wins.

      • AS says:

        I agree with your first paragraph. The flights that were cancelled before the airports closed, pre-emptively, were likely due to the rule. I’m sure its a good number, but it’s not anywhere near the extra 8337 or 29391 numbers that one of the earlier commenters posted (which in turn was a link to another article).

        On the last paragraph, actually I wasn’t home, I was away and wanted (needed!) to get back. But, knowing I wasn’t getting home on Sunday night (airport closed) or Monday (same), I was much happier to be waiting it out remotely rather than at an airport or sitting on a plane hoping that the airports would open and we could go, only to be stuck in several hours of delay and frustration. Yes I was lucky I had the option to choose my way, but I think I was better off than I would have been if there were no 3-hour rule because I would then have certainly been sitting at the airport all day Monday, maybe on a plane for several hours hoping for an airport re-open, only to eventually have to deplane and try again Tuesday.

        One study I would be interested in seeing is the schedule recovery/restart after the storm – were airlines better positioned (planes, crew) due to pre-emptive cancellations than they would have been with a “let’s try to get as many flights out as possible” stance. My perception is that most airlines operated near-full schedules on Tuesday although anecdotally I’ve heard Continental did not.

        • CF says:

          I think one of the problems with the restart was that JFK at least wasn’t at full capacity for a little bit. I think they only had one runway open for a time, so that made it tough to get a full schedule back in the air. While the precanceling does absolutely help with returning to normal (look at JetBlue this time vs the 2007 storm), crews aren’t as easy. There are so many different regulations on how long people can fly, when they can fly, etc that even if they’re in the right place it can be an enormous puzzle. Recovery is a really hard thing, unfortunately.

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