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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