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]

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