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.

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42 Comments on "How Traveling This Past Week Has Snowballed Into a Complete Mess"

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noahkimmel
Member
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… Read more »
AJ
Member
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… Read more »
Neil S.
Guest

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.

noahkimmel
Member

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

Neil S.
Guest

Makes sense. Thanks.

yo
Guest

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.

jeremy
Guest

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

Jared Hanner
Member

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.

Josiah Romanowitz
Member

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

Rye
Guest

World’s largest operator of 737 or what do you mean with largest?

DesertGhost
Guest

From what I understand, Southwest is the U.S.’s largest domestic airline measured by the number of passengers carried.

Nick Barnard
Member

As I recall that is by operating airline, not airline system. The DLs, UAs, and US/AAs, are bigger systems, but they’re spread out over more operating airlines.

DesertGhost
Guest

I’ve never seen it broken down that way. But you could be right.

Trent880
Guest

WN has been running a horrible operation for months now, independent of this weather.

David SF eastbay
Member

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.

Oliver
Guest

Except that United apparently forgot to staff appropriately.

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/united-hold-pattern-12-hour-customer-service-call-~wreq_9sQp~eLIJURlCwHA.html

Hold times on the phone were epic from what I hear. Glad I am not traveling at the moment.

lrosenberg
Member

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

lrosenberg
Member

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

RICH
Guest
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… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

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..

jaybru
Member
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… Read more »
kcasper
Member

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?

jkgoshy
Member
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,… Read more »
Pilotaaron1
Guest
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… Read more »
Justin
Guest

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

sjc user
Guest

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.

The American Way
Guest

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!

sjc user
Guest

Yeah, try driving to Europe of Hawaii and let me know how it goes.

Cedarglen
Member
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… Read more »
James
Guest

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.

Marks
Guest
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… Read more »
Marks
Guest

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

Dale
Guest
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… Read more »
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Dale
Guest

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.