How Delta Put Its JFK Operation Back Together Again After Sandy

While most travelers know that airlines are complex operations, I don’t think many can appreciate how difficult it is to actually put one back together after it has been shut down. I talked about airline operations during Hurricane Sandy last week, but today I wanted to take a closer look into how the recovery works. Let’s look at how Delta got JFK up and running again.

On Sunday, October 28, the last passenger-carrying flights landed at JFK before a two-day shut down. Unlike after September 11, 2001, however, airplanes weren’t just frozen where they stood. With the hurricane coming, the airlines knew that they could actually prepare for this well in advance.

Delta Planes Leave JFK

While some airlines left a small handful of airplanes at New York airports, most took the early warning to get those airplanes out of town. High winds and flooding have a way of damaging airplanes, and airlines didn’t want to take a chance.

Deserting JFK
Most airlines got their airplanes out of JFK Sunday night, though some departures did occur as late as early Monday. I believe the last one I saw was a Virgin Atlantic flight to London early Monday morning.

For Delta, the last arrival was flight 52 which got in just after 10p on Sunday night from LA. But did it stay? No. It turned right around as the last departure from JFK for the airline. Flight 383 left for Georgetown, Guyana at 101a early Monday morning. When that aircraft left, Delta’s JFK operation went dark for two long days.

The recovery from the shutdown had been planned as well as possible, but there are always variables that can’t be predicted. While most Delta and Delta Connection aircraft sat in far away airports waiting for the weather to clear, the Delta team was anxiously putting together plans to get things moving again. The biggest problem? They didn’t know when they could start.

As the storm progressed and the airport itself was officially shut down, it became clear that flights would not be operating at all on Monday or Tuesday. For JFK, however, the flooding and damage was minimal compared to what was happening at LaGuardia. So the hope was that JFK could reopen on Wednesday.

Of course, with no airplanes in town and crews scattered all over, there was no way that Delta could just start up its operation on Wednesday as if it had never stopped, even if the airport did reopen. There were plenty of issues in the way.

Recovery Day
So when JFK reopened Wednesday, Delta used that as a day to get things back on track. Most scheduled flights did not operate while Delta scrambled to get everything back into place. Instead, Wednesday was a day full of ferry flights to get things into place.

Oh sure, some commercial flights operated. Delta 1162, for example, left LA very early Wednesday morning as a delayed redeye from the night before. But before noon, the few arrivals were ferried aircraft that carried no passengers. Delta 9871 was a 767-400 that arrived from Atlanta just after 10a on Wednesday. That was followed closely by Delta 9878, a 767-300 from Atlanta as well.

While those airplanes were to be used for scheduled flights later in the day, they also served a greater purpose. They brought in a bunch of flight crews to be in place to take airplanes out of town when they started arriving back in New York from wherever they were parked. They also brought some people into town to help on the ground.

Ground operations were a huge concern, primarily because with a lot of people relying on public transit to get to work, they were going to have trouble getting there. The subways remained shut down and buses were packed. Just getting people to the airport was a challenge, so Delta sprung for hotel rooms to keep employees near the airport. That was all they could do to make sure people could actually get there to operate flights.

Throughout the day, airplanes kept coming in. Delta 9860, a 737-800, came from Atlanta around noon. Delta 9862 was a 757 that came from Salt Lake just after. Interestingly, that flight turned around shortly as 9863 and went to Atlanta. Clearly it had just dropped some crews off and gone on its way.

Another 757, Delta 9870 came in from Minneapolis at the same time. At 3p, a pair of 737-800s came from Atlanta as Delta 9877 and 9873. At 7p, a 757 came from Vegas as Delta 9876. In an interesting twist, Delta 1958 came in from Orlando on a scheduled flight, but then it was ferried straight down to Atlanta and back to JFK around 9p. I assume that was an effort to bring up resources from Atlanta.

The Operation Resumes
By early afternoon, Delta had enough airplanes in town that it could start operating scheduled flights out. The first was Delta 2068. It had come in from San Antonio that afternoon and continued on to Boston just after 2p. But most flights that day were reserved from the biggest markets

Delta had been able to route its 747 on the Tel Aviv flight into Detroit instead of New York. I assume that’s because the customs and immigration operation probably wasn’t up and running again yet, but I’m not sure. Regardless, they went to Detroit and then flew the aircraft over to JFK. The airplane operated the flight to Tokyo just a couple hours late.

After noon, Delta flights were coming in quickly, but there was still one piece missing. Delta Connection regional flights still weren’t operating. It looks like the very first regional flights came in around 6p from Delta hubs. Pinnacle brought a flight in from Detroit and another from Cincinnati. A couple other regional flights came in that night, but for the most part, they waited until Thursday morning.

For the regionals, many were sitting at the last place they flew from JFK. They would just wait until Thursday morning when they could operate a flight into JFK as scheduled.

The end result was that by Thursday morning, Delta’s JFK operation was back in gear. Sure, there were some residual cancellations but the operation was well on the road to normalcy in a pretty short period of time.

[Original photo via redlegsfan21/CC-SA 2.0]


22 Responses to How Delta Put Its JFK Operation Back Together Again After Sandy

  1. Sanjeev M says:

    How would DL know how far away from NYC to move the aircraft to? Was it just an assumption that ATL as HQ would be easier. I would think DTW would be easier for many of these ferries. Unless ATL has a much bigger crew bases.

    US Airways moved stuff to PIT, which probably doesn’t have a huge crew base anymore, so I wonder where the crews might be.

    Interesting stuff…

    • chinger says:

      I think it’s a little of both. Sure the hubs are obvious choices but the hubs are always busy and won’t have enough room. PIT was an easy choice for US Airways. While no longer a hub, it is a large spoke in their network, has plenty of room to park aircraft and wasn’t expected to get hit terribly hard by the storm while still being relatively close.

    • Cooper says:

      PIT also still has a US mainline MTC base. Most of US’ Republic-operated Embraer 170 and 175 aircraft were repo’d to PIT since RP having a crew base in PIT.

    • CF says:

      Sanjeev – First off, I don’t think there was much concern about it from a weather perspective. Once a hurricane hits the coast, it starts to wind down rapidly. So while they weren’t about to move the airplanes to DC or Philly, pretty much anywhere inland would have worked ok from that perspective.

      But then they start thinking about where there’s room. In Atlanta, Delta has a big base where it has a lot of parking spots. So it’s pretty easy to bring an airplane in and stack it up with others. I would think it’s also good to be there because there are a lot of crews and a lot of hotel rooms. It makes it easier to get things moving again.

      Maybe they also could have done some maintenance while those airplanes were on the ground for a couple days. That’s a great reason to bring them down to Atlanta.

      There probably were airplanes at Detroit as well, though I don’t know all the details.

      • Ron says:

        747 rerouted to DTW — any chance that the choice of destination may have something to do with the fact that these are originally NW planes?

  2. I’m sure a lot of people just think planes can fly so everything is ok to go. But like you said, are airport workers able to get to the airport, have fuel supplies been contaminated, is catering able to prepare meals for long flights? Getting planes/crews in position is not the whole story, which is something people need to remember.

  3. A small point over something that really irritates me.

    There is no such thing as “two long days”.

    Each day is 24 hours – no more and no less.

    • CF says:

      Chris – Well, if you want to use a literal interpretation, then that’s not entirely correct. Sure if you use the “24 hour” definition, then it is technically true. But the very first definition of “day” by Merriam-Webster is “the time of light between one night and the next.” So in that case, I think most people would consider the days in June to be quite long compared to those in December, especially for those who live in Alaska.

      Of course, none of that applies here because I was just using a very common figure of speech to explain that it was a nerve-wracking experience.

    • james says:

      Seriously? That’s been an accepted expression in all types of speech and writing (fiction to journalism) for as long as I’ve been reading, and centuries before.

      Of course it’s not literal; “A long sleepless night”. Or across the country today when we say “The days are getting shorter”.

      That’s an extremely obtuse quibble. The use of “long day” in this case is completely apropos.

      Now if you want to talk about when non 9-5ers say “It’s my Saturday” on a Tuesday, well…

  4. Roger says:

    Any idea of how much one of these empty/ferry flights cost? In theory they could have put out short notice of flights going into NY and let people pay what they want. (That is what Facebook & Twitter are for!) Could even donate “profits” to charity to earn goodwill.

    • Fred says:

      The cost of the actual flights is probably tiny compared to the revenue lost from cancelling hundreds of flights over those few days as well as crew staying in hotels and other costs. If anything, there probably are people who already have reservations with Delta (or an other airline) who are trying to get to New York who should be put on those flights first.

    • CF says:

      Roger – I don’t have the exact numbers, but what Fred said is right. It’s worth the price to get things moving again.

  5. Cook says:

    Spot on post, but incomplete. (If I have to say so, it is also not your best writing…)
    Delta is a great example because that have a large presence in New York. Those first few airplanes into NYC may have had lots of returning (deadheading) crews aboard, but that does not mean that said crews can just jump on another airplane – with pax – and go. FAA regulations (and contracts) consider deadheading as paid duty time and each work group has daily limits on the number of hours that they may remain on duty. Some, no doubt required at least 8 hours of crew rest before they could ‘legally’ fly with pax aboard. This is not a bad thing, but a big safety issue, for both pilots and FAs. It also adds an additional 12 or so hours to the airline’s ability to resume semi-normal operations. In the end, I think, was to continue ferrying airplanes and crews to the necessary spots and fly the next expected event for that aircraft/crew as the mandatory rest periods, misc. maintenance, and other operational issues were checked off, one-by-one. In watching some of the numbers about flights flown or cancelled from day to day, I think Delta – and the other major carriers – did a fine job of recovering their operational cycles. What they really did, was restart the schedule from scratch, ferry crews and airplanes as necessary and then jump each flight into the daily sequence as soon as all requirements were met. Of course, some flights toward the end of an airplanes business day took another day or two to find their unique jump-on spots. And…
    And that addresses only the operational side of the airline. They still had countless passengers stranded, some in unusual or unexpected spots, also waiting their turn to jump back onto the passing merry-go-round. Recovering from even a one day shut down, especially when aircraft have been relocated for safety reasons, is simply not going to happen within one 24-hour cycle. During those restart days, the load factors were either almost empty – or bursting at 100%. By late today (Monday) most operations at most airlines are mostly within the normal range, but there are still a few ragged ends. They staff at absolute minimum levels these days and there are very few folks, flight or cabin, sitting on “Reserve” just waiting for something to do. For the rest of the week, I’d guess that most flight cancellations will be due to crew availability, again running up against maximum hours per day or per week without mandated, extended rest periods.
    As interesting and a much fun as your business may be, most of the time, ,the last week is one during which I would not want to walk in your shoes! Finding solutions for your clients is one thing, but what do you offer when there are NO solutions available – at any price? A timely post and thanks!

  6. B757capt says:

    I find it interesting that both the mainstream media and you Cranky focused on DL. CNBC did live newscasts from DL’s SOC in ATL. New York Times wrote a story on DL’s recovery.

    What about JetBlue, AA, or UA? All have much larger operations in NYC.

    Not complaining just wondering…..

    • CF says:

      B757capt – I think it’s a function of Delta’s PR team being so responsive. To be fair, I didn’t reach out to JetBlue because I thought it would be more interesting to look at a more complex operation. I assume JetBlue would have been very helpful. I didn’t even think of American because it’s smaller than both Delta and United in New York and I have had better luck getting substantive answers from both Delta and United as well.

      I reached out to both United and Delta. United responded that it couldn’t pry anyone away from the ops group to help answer questions so I had nothing to work with. Meanwhile, I had a long call with spokesperson Morgan Durrant at Delta, and he was more than happy to walk me through the details. I combined that with some of my own research on Flightaware about operations and it was an easy choice. When airlines are cooperative, it makes it much easier to put a story together.

      • I’d be interested in JetBlue’s recovery and pushing their LGA flights (however few there were of them) over to JFK. Its a simple but creative way they kept the operation humming, and I’m curious if most of the passengers followed them, or there were lots of cancellations on those flights..

  7. Oliver says:

    Would be interesting to hear how things were at the Cranky Concierge before, during and after the shutdown of east coast airports.

    • CF says:

      Oliver – Well, the short version is that the weekend before the storm hit was really busy. In particular, Sunday was crazy since airlines had really started canceling flights. (I was actually on vacation in San Diego and didn’t leave the condo all day.) By Monday, things were quiet. Nobody was flying and all the cancellations were in place until they knew if things were going to get worse or not. We had a couple of clients who decided to scrap their trips entirely but it was quiet.

      Then Tuesday ramped up again as the extent of the problem became clear. But most of the action that day was from people signing up who were traveling later in the week. We were lucky that there were several options for new flights since it’s an off peak time, so after Wednesday, things were mostly back to normal for us.

  8. EJ Juen Jr says:

    Kudos to Delta’s team for that quick recovery. Here in the Philippines, we get an average of 9 typhoons yearly and 19 is our worst record. Your post makes me appreciate more the kind of teamwork our airline companies are doing.

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