How Traveling This Past Week Has Snowballed Into a Complete Mess

It’s not uncommon for a big winter storm to mess with travel plans, but this past week can best be described as a convergence of suck. A ton of different things came together to create one of the worst travel weeks I can remember in a long time. I’ve slept very little as we had urgent Cranky Concierge signup after urgent signup rolling in the door. While it won’t help console you if you’re still stuck somewhere, here’s what happened to make things get so, so very bad.

Brutal New Years Flight Cancels

1) A Lot of Friggin’ People Were Traveling
After the new year arrived last Wednesday, the number of people looking to travel ramped up. Once we got into the weekend, those who stretched Christmas into New Years finally had to head back home and flights were extremely full. So even if all the flights that were scheduled to operate did so, flights were going to be packed. It left little room for recovery if something went wrong.

2) Snow Strikes Early and Often
If you live in Southern California like I do, you might not realize that the weather has been so bad. (We’re sunny and comfortably into the ’70s.) But if you flipped on a TV, you would have been smacked with all the horrific storm warnings that accompany any bad weather situation because of the 24 hour news cycle. What makes this unique is that it is not letting up.

Starting last Tuesday night, a storm snuck into the Midwest and dumped snow for a couple days. Then it moved into the Northeast Thursday into Friday. The Midwest was better at recovery, but the Northeast was hit pretty hard and was slow to dig out. Then, after a couple days, snow hit the Midwest again on Sunday, moved into the Northeast, and all hell broke loose. Sunday was a bad day with even hearty Detroit seeing average air traffic control delays of 3 hours. People who were impacted by the first storm had rolled into the next storm. Airlines had tried to recover but weren’t able to do much in the short gap between storms.

The lengthy, repeated one-two punch with these storms meant that some people have probably been stuck for a week. Airline operations were (and currently are) an absolute mess, sometimes worse than others…

3) Airplanes Decided to Go Off-Roading
You’d think the snowy weather would have been enough, right? Nope. Spirit had a plane go off a taxiway on Saturday night in Chicago. And there was a much more serious, fatal non-commercial accident in Aspen on Sunday. But the biggest issue for air traffic movement was at JFK. A Delta Connection flight slid off a taxiway and into a snowbank. After that, the airport decided that it was no longer safe to operate so it closed the airport for a couple hours. As you can imagine, that did not help matters at all. But wait, there’s more.

4) Crews Needed More Rest Starting This Weekend
This already sounds like the perfect storm, but it became, uh, perfecter thanks to new crew rest rules that went into effect on Saturday. These had been debated for years (remember the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo?) and they were finally set to implement the new rules on January 4.

I won’t get into the full details here, but let me try to boil it down. The old rules were more flexible. Pilots could have been on duty (not flying, but available to fly) for up to 16 hours. They could fly up to 8 hours of that, but that could be extended if things got ugly. Then they had to have at least 8 hours of rest before starting again. In particular that 16 hour duty day allowed for flexibility when flights were delayed.

The new rule, however, is much more complex. Pilots can be on duty (not flying) for somewhere between 9 and 14 hours depending upon how early they start and how many flights they fly in a day. And they can fly no more than 8 or 9 hours depending upon the time of day they start. This rule has less flexibility when things get ugly. In addition, pilots must now have a minimum of 10 hours rest.

Most airlines did a ton of work to prepare for this rule, and they had a lot of time to do it. But you can never be fully prepared for an enormous disruption like we’ve had this week. And when things do get ugly like this, the new crew rest rules are going to have a bigger impact on the ability to get flights moving. (It appears JetBlue may have been in the worst position with this, from what I’ve seen.) I’m not going to judge whether it’s right or wrong, but it does mean there’s less flexibility.

5) And Then The Cold Came
You’d think I’d be done by now, but I’m not. In the winter, it’s usually snow that causes problems but we ran into some trouble with the significant cold snap that followed the snow this week. Of course, the people in Minneapolis are used to dealing with cold, but the cold air penetrated so far south that it impacted places that don’t normally worry.

Even in Chicago, there were problems. I spoke with American and yesterday morning they had problems with the fuel nozzles and the air inside fuel trucks freezing, preventing them from being able to fuel airplanes. That was fixed later in the day and they put contingency plans in place to make sure it didn’t repeat as an issue, but you can see the kind of situation we’re dealing with here when temps go well below zero.

You might have heard that JetBlue had to shut down from 5p ET last night until 10a ET today in New York because of the cold temperatures. I don’t buy it. I think JetBlue actually just got its operation so messed up that it couldn’t figure out how to recover without simply shutting down and starting over.

While JetBlue customers probably suffered more than many in the last week, every airline has been stressed. There have been thousands of cancellations and getting through to reservations on the phone has been nearly impossible on any airline. Let’s not even talk about Southwest in Chicago, where there have been several long tarmac delays that are bound to get a serious tab running with the DOT.

Fortunately, the weather appears to be improving for the next few days, and the loads will lighten as we get into an off-peak time period. But it will take time for these airlines to dig out from what is most definitely one of the worst weeks I’ve seen in a long time.


42 Responses to How Traveling This Past Week Has Snowballed Into a Complete Mess

  1. Noah says:

    I love Jetblue and am usually a big advocate. But I have to question the strategic direction of having some 60-75% of flights touch JFK and BOS without a strong contingency plan. Changes need to be made at the top, and the b6 excuses really don’t cut it. The airline is generally last in on-time % during the holidays due to an aggressive schedule into congested cities, so when things go bad, they get hit hard. After the storm that ousted Neeleman, Barger promised this would never happen again. Here we are.

    What I dont understand, is why the airline doesn’t have a better contingency plan? They are no longer a niche LCC that can get away with 5+ day rebookings and not give any compensation (or only refund the flight)–especially if they claim to be a service leader, not a price leader. Worse, I heard customer service was overwhelmed, with as little as 1 person staffing the “Just Ask” counters at JFK and 3+ hour waits on the phone.

    If they wont keep extra spare aircraft and crews in order to maximize revenue, they need to protect against the loss. Why not make an “insurance” policy with a charter carrier to wet lease their equipment in case of storms and delays? Even beyond charter carriers, partners like Emirates have planes that sit all day at JFK, couldn’t they be contracted for a JFK-FLL turn?

    ——

    Seth, do you think airlines are also quicker to cancel flights now? Without bringing people to the hub cities to get stuck mid-trip, and especially while cancelling before pax arrive at the airport, the airlines no longer have to compensate passengers who face delays/cancellations. This is a hidden cost of the consolidation–fewer hubs to move pax, more acceptance of poor service. I think the next round of regulation will be on limits for re-accommodation. I get weather is “act of god” or “uncontrollable” but 5+ days for re-booking without any compensation or cost reimbursement seems ridiculous.

    Even worse, when flights go tech, airlines still blame weather to avoid compensation, and there is no oversight of what the gate agent tags the delay reason. Obviously, carriers have an incentive to call it weather, even if it isn’t.

    • AJ says:

      There’s nothing strategically wrong with having the majority of ops at two airports for an airline the size of Jetblue. It’s hard for even the majors to recover in situations like this. I’m not sure it’s fair to ask airlines to be prepared for what amounts to an air travel cataclysm of events like this. Having that amount of resources sitting idle all the time would be financially devastating.

      I’m pretty sure their international partners, like Emirates, can’t legally operate a flight within the US on behalf of B6. Even if they could, the logistics of that make it almost impossible. Where is Jetblue equipped to handle a widebody, outside of that lone HA flight in JFK?

      Not knowing which airlines you have experience with; but with every airline I’ve had experience with delay coding is highly supervised and even often criticized for the sake of being correct. More often than not it is the decision of Dispatch/SOC, and if an agent codes something they don’t like..it will be corrected.

    • CF says:

      Noah – Really what’s going on here is that we’re at one of the most extreme events we’ve seen. So nobody is going to handle it well, but it does seem that JetBlue fell behind early and could never catch up. Travelers suffered a lot on JetBlue and it does have shades of the 2007 meltdown. Without having a pro go in and do a real post-mortem, it’s hard to second guess any of the tactical issues that occurred. We just don’t know the details. But strategically, maybe it is time they bump up their spare fleet or maybe they need to hire more pilots. I don’t know the answer.

      I can’t imagine getting a foreign carrier to operate a domestic segment. Even if you could arrange a short wet lease to operate it, I don’t see how JetBlue is going to figure out how to operate an A380. Where will the pilots come from? If Emirates, you really think they have the time to do that? No way. But there are other domestic charter operators that can be used for contracting. I heard JetBlue was working on that but I don’t know if it happened. Those planes may have been utilized elsewhere already.

      Lastly, I assume you were talking to me and not “Seth,” I don’t think airlines are quicker to cancel flights on purpose. They are more likely to cancel with the tarmac rule in place. But they want to operate the best schedule they can. If they try not to cancel too much, then they get burned by never being able to keep up. It’s JetBlue 2007 all over again. But there is a huge cost to canceling, so they really want to avoid it.

  2. Neil S. says:

    I also have been wondering why B6 was hit so much harder than the other airlines in the area. DL also has a ton of flights at LGA and JFK, and was impacted, but didn’t appear to meltdown.

    • Noah says:

      According to masFlight, on Jan 5, DL “marketed” 5255 flights and cancelled 894 (15%), B6 “marketed 894 and cancelled 274 (30%).

      A much smaller percentage of DL’s network touches JFK/LGA which means pax can be routed to other hubs and planes can be isolated to turns to the same “bad” city to avoid systemic problems. Also, DL has more spare aircraft in the system, more fleet slack, and more crews throughout the system that can be deployed quickly if needed for recovery. They also have larger equipment and can up gauge flights if needed

  3. yo says:

    Nasty nasty stuff, glad people are turning to you!

    Reminds me of my friend who owns a roofing company…when it rains, it rains money….

    Keep up the good work.

  4. jeremy says:

    Cranky, what happened with Southwest at MDW. The news in Chicago make it sound like the end of the world.

    • CF says:

      jeremy – As RICH said below, they had too many airplanes and not enough gates. Ended up being pure chaos. But really, Midway has been a very bad operation for some time now. There is a lot of connecting traffic there and they’ve struggled mightily.

  5. Jared says:

    On the news this morning they said that AA’s fuel supply had actually FROZEN because it was so cold. I am sure it was not true – maybe the nozzles were frozen, but it is freekin’ cold. Gotta love the 75 degree weather in Los Angeles… sorry that was mean.

  6. Very interesting to see SWA making mistakes, like leaving people out on the tarmac, that formerly were only problems of a poorly run airline. Guess this comes with the territory once you become the world’s largest. Hope they can right the ship (or pull it into the gate) more often.

    -Jay

  7. This is why airlines need hubs in different weather zones and to keep aircraft/crews within those zones as much as possible. B6 has to much of their operation tied up in JFK and BOS which are to close and you can see how they failed.

    UA can handle things better now with their large north/south west coast operation and east/west via Houston. The more aircraft they can schedule to focus in those areas, they can keep operations going and still bring in money to help where it’s being lost in other areas right now.

  8. LEE ROSENBERG says:

    After AA cancelled my flights from PBI I needed to come up with seats for myself, wife, daughter in law, and two grandchildren
    Thank goodness for Derrick as he got me out via FLL and the rest are going out of PBI. Her worked until 3:00am to do this and he was awesome

  9. lee rosenberg says:

    Derrick saved my day, without him I don’t know what my family or I would have done

  10. RICH says:

    over 12 Southwest planes were stuck on the tarmac for over 2-3 hours
    when NO gates were available… and it snow balled from there..at
    Midway MDW Chicago… Over 22 inches of snow over 4 days
    plus -18 below zero temps with 44 Below Wind Chill has set Chicago ORD
    back 4-5 days… Was suppose to fly to PHX on Monday but delayed
    until this Friday… ORD is averaging 1,600 flights canceled every day
    this week.. Too many crews and Planes not where they are suppose to be..
    I am betting that by March 1 things will be back to normal here….

  11. How much do you want to be that when WN’s penalty for the MDW fiasco is levied it’ll be lower than if it was UA or AA at ORD? WN is a bit of a golden child for the regulators..

    • CF says:

      Nick – It will be interesting to see. So far, this looks to be one of the most egregious violations. At least, that’s what I hear but not from official reports. So it will be interesting to see what DOT does.

  12. JayB says:

    People like Cranky could write books about this stuff and I would trust his opinions far more than that of any airline. Do airlines actually have contingency plans for bad weather? Can you trust anything they tell you? Do people who tell you what is happening actually know what is going on? Do airlines actually sense frustration?

    Long weekend to Reno on UA, out of Dulles, via Houston out, Denver back. So snow hits IAD Thursday night and I have this flight leaving IAD Friday at 522 am. [Why are airlines actually scheduling flights at such times? Of course, why am I, and others actually taking these-timed flights?]

    We board right on time. Once on board, the pilot says we’ll have to de-ice. How long that will take, he doesn’t know. So, we wait and the pilot comes back on. He indicates that there are de-icing trucks around, just that not one for us. He indicates UA only has 2 de-icing vehicles at IAD. [I find this very hard to believe, 2, at a major hub like IAD?.] The first one has run out of fluid from the other plane they were working on and the pilot says they, whoever they is, can’t tell him when one will handle us, if at all.

    Time passes. Enough (and I’m sure the pilot is quite knowledgeable about the DOT rules) and he indicates people can get off and go into the terminal if they choose…then, he corrects himself, no, everyone, gather up your belongings and get off. Inside, the TV monitor says the flight is delayed because of Air Traffic Control. Hmmn. Pilot never mentioned anything about ATC…it was all the de-icing snafu, he says.

    Do we believe anyone? Do you think anyone really knows?

    We eventually get to see a de-icing vehicle, wait and wait ’till it seems to get the plane cleared off, re-board, and eventually take off, now, 3 hours late.

    So all connections are kaput, and IAH has to deal with us. [Meanwhile the brunt of the storm for the Northeast is about to explode.] I’m sent to PHX to connect with US to RNO. I magically make the close connection and arrive at RNO, now 7 hours late, and thanks to UA at IAH, my checked bag arrives on the carousel. Amazing! How did that actually happen?

    So, coming back, today, all UA, lots of people, backlogged from everywhere…hello, I can honestily say UA ran a perfect, a perfect operation…check-in, TSA Pre handling, flight operation, [Channel 9 on one flight, at least], connection, arrival (OK, so the IAD mobile gate operator was a little slow), IAD baggage delivery, your name it. Terrific!

    How does it go so bad one way, yet so perfect the other? One just wonders whether everyone up and down the line is reading from the same contingency plan, assuming there is one.

  13. Ken says:

    Cranky,

    There were some rumours that Southwest had a large number of workers calling in sick at Midway (mentioned on Flyertalk). Have you heard anything about possible labor problems with them?

    • CF says:

      Ken – I had heard that as well. The flight attendants put out a release saying “Severe weather and a shortage of ground personnel in Chicago forced the delay of many flights, despite management’s efforts to bring in additional staff from other locations.” Whether that means it was a sick out or simply scheduling issue, I don’t know.

  14. Judy says:

    Oh my, these stories sound like miserable trips for all involved. Cranky, I really enjoy your information. I used to love flying somewhere, anywhere, to visit new places. Now, each time I fly, it’s another hassle. Too crowded, tight seating (I’m a petite person and upset with cramped spaces too), and on and on. Have difficulty remembering the pleasant experiences and they do occur. The bad outweighs the good. I suppose I’ll spend most of the next 50 years (I’m 61) experiencing the world from the internet or television. But when I go visit my son and dil in Perth, AU, I will take the shortest, most direct, comfortable route available. No loyalty for more miles. Need to travel at sensible times too.
    Many years ago, I said no air travel during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Seems that I haven’t ever dealt with those nightmares. However, what was once acceptable when flying no longer exists. Airlines won’t survive on my travel patterns. I’m certain they don’t miss me. My children and all their world have the money to go everywhere. Maybe younger folks haven’t been seasoned enough to say “no more.”

  15. Pilotaaron1 says:

    While I love MDW for the quick connections and the fun landings. I think it is about time for WN to start to consider scaling back their operation there a bit and funnel traffic through other airports where there is more room for capacity. MDW can’t get any bigger and I’ve flown in enough times only to have to wait while our gate was still occupied. And that is when the weather is good. Now most of this may change with the Wright amendment and DAL. But maybe grow STL a little or PIT (had to throw that one in such a nice and underutilized airport and yes I know why it is, still my home airport though).

    • Justin says:

      What about MKE? AirTran had a hub there before WN bought them out and the airport definitely has plenty of space.

  16. sjc user says:

    I was really lucky in that I was able to re-book my BOS – SJC flight from 1/3 to 1/4 right when the weather waiver was announced on 1/1. Only spent 10 minutes on the phone with DL and everything was completed.

  17. The American Way says:

    Simple comment-

    All cranky fliers all you have to do is DRIVE to your location instead of bitching about airline travel! Now move on to the next bitch session!

  18. No Fly Zone says:

    If one must ravel at this time of year, I guess it makes sense to sign up with a tracking/assistance service such as Cranky, but do so BEFORE the storm hits. (Duh? IF there is anything that can be done, known, existing customers probably get helped first.) Even with a monitoring and re-booking service such as Cranky, there are weather-related limits and they cannot create extra flights or make a hole in the weather just for you. Nice idea, but get a grip. Smart flyers watch the weather as stay home. The better airlines will try to help, but when the troubles are weather-related, their obligations are very few. Stay home.

  19. James says:

    This reminds of the summer where 4 hurricanes hit Florida in succession and I was working reservations at Delta.

    I feel for those souls working on the phones and absorbing all that anger from the general public.

  20. Marks says:

    I am writing again about the Jet Blue incompetency to handle flight cancellations. My son was flying syracuse ny to phoenix az
    Lat week on Friday 1/3. He was originally to board around 6 pm instead the delayed and delayed until after midnight, when they cancelled. So you have an 18 yr old on his first trip alone in NYC and after over an hour on the phone I am told sorry nothing we can do. Not even a food coupon! He was rebooked for Tuesday. We arrange for him a place to stay and get him picked up at JFK after 2 a.m. And wait. He gets to the airport on Tuesday and his flight to Boston then to Phoenix is on time. Seemed odd since all other Jet Blue flights were cancelled! He was told to go to Boston, luckily I checked Boston and found out that the Phoenix flight was already cancelled! So I stopped him from getting on he flight after another hour plus to jet Blue customer, no can do anything for you but say I am sorry, we get through and they tell me Friday 1/10 is the earliest we can get him out. I ask about bringing him back to Syracuse they tell me earliest is Monday 1/13. Now I drive to NY to get him and after much discussion we decide to cancel the flight. I have been on hold with Jet blue for over an hour again. After the first 30 min. I got customer no service. I say this because due to the flight not being paid by credit card she could not help me. I then spent 30 more minutes wait for a supervisor., and another 30 minutes waiting for her to process the refund. Just after she says the refund will take 4-6 weeks the call failed. Was it her or just verizon saying that is enough get off the phone. OOOh one more thing, she told me we can submit for expenses occurred. Just send in the receipts! The 18 year old sleeping on the floor does not have a hotel bill. And he did not keep those food receipts, and he just did not have enough money on him to take a Limo into Manhattan to enjoy his 5 day stay in NYC!!!!!!! Thank you Jet Blue, for nothing!

  21. Marks says:

    Did you get my Jet Blue horror story? All of a sudden it disappeared! I feel like Jet Blue hijacked it.

  22. Dale says:

    I’m puzzled that there’s been virtually zippo coverage (or much discussion) about United deciding to scrap all United Express flying proactively at ORD for days. O’Hare definitely got nailed with snow and then the severe cold followed. Nobody contests that conditions were exceptionally miserable, and it was unavoidable there would be many cancelations. But while United scraped all UA* flights at O’Hare, American operated a decent number of AA* flights at O’Hare, and Delta did the same at Detroit which also got dumped with snow followed by subzero cold.

    It’s one thing to not operate RJ short hop feeder flights when lots of mainline flights are canceled — why bring in 45 people from Peoria to strand them at O’Hare when their outbounds have been canceled. But many medium and larger destinations for United at ORD are all or nearly all UA*. So United didn’t operate a single flight for a couple of days to places like Atlanta, Raleigh, Kansas City, Dallas and plenty others, while the competition still operated around 40-60% of their flights in the same markets.

    I get the idea that by canceling proactively they avoided throngs of stranded people at the airport, getting planes and crews stuck where they didn’t belong, etc. But on the flip side it means countless people were stuck without a flight for 5+ days in some cases. Now United definitely HAD to cancel a good chunk of flights to reduce total volume to a level closer to what the crews, deicers and ATC could handle. But one wonders if it would have been better for them to identify X% of flights to focus on operating instead of just dumping everything.

    I would love to know how well (or poorly) American did with passengers. Most of us are probably familiar with the sort of situation where an airline tries to run more than weather and ATC end up allowing. Among the worst customer experiences an airline passenger can have is to be strung for a creeping delay which last for hours and ultimately cancels, especially if you can’t just hope in your car and go back home. If American had a great deal of this at ORD then maybe United took the better option. But American did successfully get all sorts of people to destinations where United didn’t.

    A couple of places where I tried to bring this discussion up, I was mostly met with comments on how miserably cold and snowy it was in Chicago. That’s true, but the weather wasn’t any better over on the AA* ramp at ORD nor at DTW for Delta. I’m not saying that AA* ORD and DL* DTW ran smoothly in the face of that weather — of course not. But they both got a whole lot of people where they needed to go eventually, and I wonder whose decision was better. And I wonder if there will be lasting damage to United among Chicago business travelers. This sort of thing could be a real setback at trying to convince travelers that large RJ’s are just about as good as mainline because in this situation they were clearly, inferior.

    • CF says:

      Dale – Here are how flights did for both United and American at O’Hare along with Delta at Detroit. This is mainline and express.

      Saturday
      AA – completed 86.2% of flights, 43.8% of flights on time
      DL – completed 96.8% of flights, 74% of flights on time
      UA – completed 70.4% of flights, 42.1% of flights on time

      Sunday
      AA – completed 47.3% of flights, 22.2% of flights on time
      DL – completed 62.2% of flights, 41.6% of flights on time
      UA – completed 8.4% of flights, 35% of flights on time

      Monday
      AA – completed 14.2% of flights, 36.6% of flights on time
      DL – completed 59.5% of flights, 28.3% of flights on time
      UA – completed 16.4% of flights, 46.4% of flights on time

      Tuesday
      AA – completed 47.8% of flights, 40.1% of flights on time
      DL – completed 39.2% of flights, 28.2% of flights on time
      UA – completed 46.4% of flights, 64.9% of flights on time

      Wednesday
      AA – completed 90% of flights, 40.4% of flights on time
      DL – completed 76.8% of flights, 62% of flights on time
      UA – completed 89% of flights, 56.6% of flights on time

      So it looks to me like United cut very aggressively in advance of the storm, but it has been able to maintain much better operational integrity afterwards. Cancels may be similar but on time performance is way better than American. Just different operational philosophies.

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  24. Dale says:

    Interesting stats — thanks for posting! Looks like Sunday was the day of biggest difference, and I didn’t realize how relatively close the other days were.

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