An In-Depth Look at How Airlines Handled the Weather in New York and Chicago

I’ve had a few notes and comments come in regarding how one airline handled the bad weather last week versus another airline. There’s no question that the airlines handled things differently, and for that reason, I thought it would be fun to walk through how it went. (Warning: Excel wonkiness ahead.)

Thanks to masFlight, I was able to pull delay and cancellation information by marketing carrier. In other words, the numbers we’re going to look at include the mainline airline and all express carriers that operate under its banner. That’s the right way to look at on-time performance information, even though it’s different than what the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows by just looking at the results by operating carrier.

I focused in on two numbers. I looked at the completion factor, which is the percentage of flights that operated. (Subtract from 100 percent and you’ll get the percent of flights that were canceled.) I also took the DOT measure for on-time performance, A14. Those are flights that arrive at the gate within 14 minutes of schedule.

Let’s start with Chicago. I looked at American and United in O’Hare to get an idea of how they each ran their operations.

Chicago On Time and Cancel

Chicago had measurable snow on January 2, 4, and 5. As you can see on the 2nd and 3rd, the two airlines were relatively similar in their operations with slightly better on time performance by United. On the 4th, things changed.

United began pulling down its schedule in advance of the coming storm much more than American did. On-time performance was roughly the same, but more United travelers were stranded as the airline prepared for the worst.

As you can see, United basically stopped operating on the 5th with fewer than 10 percent of flights going. American, meanwhile, was able to run nearly half its operation. Of course, the United flights that did go were more likely to be on time than American’s, but there were so few it’s hard to read anything into that number. American passengers had a better shot of getting out that day.

On the 6th, the snow had passed and the temperatures plummeted. We all heard about some of the fueling issues in Chicago that caused problems and neither airline was able to operate much of a schedule. United had better on-time performance, but if only about 15 percent of your flights go, then who cares? Pretty much everyone had a miserable day.

By the 7th, things were quickly rebounding, but United excelled in on-time performance. That has to be because it had canceled much more in advance so it was easier to get back on track. That trend bled into the 8th as well. In other words, through the storm, American tried to operate more flights than United and because of that, it had fewer running on-time. But it did get them out. Meanwhile, United was quicker to recover after.

Now, let’s go east and see how things shook out in New York. I looked at both LaGuardia and JFK for American and Delta since they technically consider that a split hub. For JetBlue, I just looked at JFK since LaGuardia is pretty inconsequential for them. I didn’t touch Newark at all to keep things more simple.

New York On Time and Completion Performance

In New York, the snow began to move in on the 2nd of January but really stuck around into the 3rd. On the 2nd, a lot of flights were canceled, but the airlines didn’t vary much from each other. JetBlue, however, lagged in on-time performance significantly. Things did not improve for the Blue Crew.

On the third, JetBlue had the first of several days with single digit on-time percentage. It canceled fewer flights than the rest and it appears the operation suffered for that decision. Keep in mind, it still canceled half its flights, so it’s not like JetBlue is some champion here.

By the 4th, the weather was good, but JetBlue was in trouble. American recovered to almost no cancellations while Delta jumped back above 80 percent. JetBlue, however, was at 75 percent and in last place. Though American and Delta saw big jumps in on-time performance, JetBlue remained down in the single digits.

On the 5th, the rain and snow began to roll in again, and things trended down. Cancellations increased and on-time performance sagged for everyone with JetBlue still failing to get more than 10 percent of its flights out on time.

On the 6th, JetBlue really got into trouble. Cancellations held steady for American and Delta but JetBlue sank like a stone. Why? Well, JetBlue began ramping down its operation that afternoon and went into a full halt later in the day so it could try to get back on track. The flights that did go before the shutdown were rarely on-time but at least JetBlue was able to claw its way into double digits.

By the 7th, JetBlue remained shut in the morning hours and that’s why cancellations were so high. But on-time performance finally climbed out of the gutter and joined the rest in the 50 percent range.

On the 8th, JetBlue’s operation was back on track, running nearly all its flights. On time performance continued to suffer at just over 50 percent, but that was a huge improvement. What’s good is relative, after all.

The one thing this doesn’t show us is when the airlines canceled the flights that they did. If flights were canceled early, before people got to the airport, then that is far better than doing it at the last minute. But I don’t know if that kind of data is available anywhere other than internally at the airlines.

These examples clearly show that there are different operating strategies at each airline. There are likely to be times where each one will be the best option, but that’s never going to be the case every single time.

25 Responses to An In-Depth Look at How Airlines Handled the Weather in New York and Chicago

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] AA performs great at ORD and NYC (JFK+LGA) during big storm - FlyerTalk Forums

  2. Sanjeev M says:

    It’d be interesting to see the WN data for MDW and compare performance with AA and UA at O’Hare, mainly to get a sense of the effects of physical and resource limitations at MDW.

    But overall due to many factors airlines have been more proactive in canceling flights and quickly moving frames out of winter weather, which I think overall is better for the public and the recovery of the operation.

    • CF says:

      Sanjeev – I actually originally pulled the Southwest data and it was kind of noisy compared to AA/UA so I left it out. Basically, Southwest saw fewer swings but had a consistently mediocre performance. I’m actually working on a much bigger Southwest data pull, but that is probably going to be for PlaneBusiness.

  3. A says:

    Can you explain the fueling issues? I know it got cold at ORD but MSP had it even colder and there was nary of mention of any issues there.

    DTW got snow significant too but didn’t get much publicity on cancellations or delays. What are the stats there compared to ORD?

    I’m always skeptical of all the “weather related” problems at ORD when Delta operates 2 hubs in even worse climates with less issue. My opinion is the problems at O’Hare are due to it being massively over crowded and land locked.

    • ScottC says:

      I can’t speak to specifics, but Northwest ran MSP and DTW for years and pioneered the use of the Great Circle route and was very adept at operating in very cold i.e. arctic temperatures. I myself would love to know what specific things were learned and are still in use at these airports to help operations.

      At MSP, I suspect that the at gate fueling hydrants are a big help as well as the dedicated de-icing pads for each runway. This means aircraft are not stuck at the gate when being de-iced.

    • CF says:

      A – The difference is that O’Hare wasn’t as prepared as MSP/Detroit because they don’t usually see temps quite as cold. The issue as explained to me by American was that the nozzles on fuel trucks froze as did some of the air in them, so they couldn’t fuel airplanes. I would assume that the ones in MSP/Detroit are better equipped.

      As for Detroit, it did see some very bad delays and significant cancellations. But it wasn’t as bad as Chicago.

      O’Hare is far from being the overcrowded place it used to be. There are a lot more runways in a friendlier configuration now, and it can handle a lot more. You don’t see the same kind of gridlock as you do in NYC.

  4. LongTimeObserver says:

    Do AA and UA numbers include organic and “commanded” cancellations of their regional AA* and UA* code-bearing partners?

  5. RICH says:

    All you have to do is eat in the restaurants around ORD in Chicago
    and listen to the flight crews and mechanics talking… You
    get the real truth there… The De Icing truck pumps froze up and had
    to be towed to Hangers to thaw out every few hours… The fueling
    stations were a joke, pumping at 20 % if that…
    The new United flight crew-Pilot Computer did not work
    correctly and crashed; causing pilots to be out of proper locations.
    United will not say how many flights were canceled,because of the computer
    break downs as they would be on the hook to customers.
    Tugs that pull airplanes out of gates were frozen and had to be towed.
    The air craft were running fine they are use to 50 below zero temps
    being up at 38 K feet. It is the support equipment,computers and crews that
    broke down. And we are only half way through winter oh joy…..

  6. CP says:

    I love this kind of analysis–real differences in how the carriers approached the situation. Very interesting!

  7. JayB says:

    De-icing trucks. Re: one of my rants about UA at IAD, Fri. Jan. 3. Who owns, operates, manages this equipment and operations at various airports? Hubs (say, UA at IAD), major non-hubs (like, UA at DCA), all others (say, UA at Harrisburg)?

    And of course, I’m always a little dubious about cancellation and delay stats considering some flights are mainline while others are regional or DBA “express.” Do the stats tell the totality of an airline’s operations?

    For the regional and the “express,” who calls the shots re: de-icing, operating, delaying, cancelling these flights? Is this any different than when a mainline aircraft is used? Can a traveler expect UA, for example, will manage the contingency, or whatever it is, identically regardless of the type aircraft being used?

    For me, and I’m sure others, when it comes to delay and cancellation stats, I want to see the airline’s total operation figures. Who cares who operated the flight. I want the stats to reflect the entirety of the airline’s operations.

  8. Clyde Walter says:

    Interesting article. To add some perspective from a passenger who arrived at ORD from LHR about 7 pm Saturday, Jan. 4, to find my flight to DSM cancelled: I stood in line for 2 hours to meet with a United customer service agent to get a standby boarding pass for Tuesday and a confirmed reservation for Wednesday. The United agents were courteous and far too patient, spending up to 1/2 hour with several families or couples that I observed. United was simply unprepared, with too few representatives and no attempt at efficiency; e.g., one desk assigned to destinations A, B, and C, next desk for D, E, and F (based on passenger count, which they would already have). Another alternative: announcements within the waiting international transfer area to obtain hotel information (the pink sheet with the 1-800 number for distressed passengers’ accommodations and instructions) and to contact United the next day (and method of making that contact–passengers later reported that United’s phones were not being answered). I returned to the airport on Sunday, for another 2 hour line, and obtained standby boarding passes for ORD to DEN, then DEN to DSM (United had some service still scheduled to Denver and from Denver to Des Moines, even though direct service from Chicago was cancelled). I made it to Denver on Sunday night, stayed at another hotel (on me, since weather caused the outage), and finally arrived at DSM on Monday night, not quite 48 hours late.

    If the passengers I heard stick to their vows to never fly on airline X (United was not the only one mentioned in the griping), the airlines may experience a reduction in traffic, which may bring their passenger numbers back down to a level they can serve. I’ll be doing my part.

  9. Appreciate your analysis and thanks for the effort. I feel it would be a lot more insightful to look at ontime performance as an A60 or a D60 instead of A14. On a major disruptive week as this, nobody would care about being on time as much as not being severely delayed. An airline can have a very low A14 but if they ran their ops with an average delay of 30-60 mins that would be still a great achievement. Besides nobody notices being 14 mins late but on the other an hour or two would be more impactful.

    • Forgot to add. Your point on reporting metrics on the marketing carrier is spot on. I know many airlines cancelling the heck out of their regionals to keep their mainline on time and the impact on regional pax is never fully captured. DOT is using archaic methods to come up with its statistics.

    • CF says:

      BravoNovember – Good point about A60. I’m not sure if I’d be able to find that easily, but I’m sure it’s in the raw data. I think the best indicator here isn’t on time performance but really cancellations anyway.

  10. MeanMeosh says:

    It appears there may have been more to the UA cancellations than just the storm, though it’s unclear just how much this contributed to the mayhem. I would sure hope UA didn’t try to pass off cancellations due to the computer issue as weather-related, though that wouldn’t exactly shock me, either, given the state of the airline right now.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-10/united-said-to-struggle-with-computer-switch.html

    • RICH says:

      My reliable sources say the new pilot locator computer
      system came on line late December.. and numerous
      Retired pilots were called to come in … DUH
      and allegedly one widow of dead pilot was
      called for him to come in… Nice up to date System..

      • Donald says:

        “Retired pilots were called to come in”
        I doubt that . When a pilot retires, he or she
        is removed from the list. They would need to
        be retrained and brought up to currency, before
        flying the line. Another urban legend!

  11. Chest Rockwell says:

    Can you run the DL/AA/B6 numbers again for JFK only? JFK had issues on the 3rd and 5th that don’t mirror what happened in LGA. I am just trying top get a sense of how terrible B6 was here.

    • CF says:

      Chest – Sorry for the delay on this. I can just do JFK. Let’s see how the formatting does here:

      2-Jan 3-Jan 4-Jan 5-Jan 6-Jan 7-Jan 8-Jan
      AA Completion 81.3% 31.9% 100.0% 86.8% 87.6% 89.0% 95.5%
      B6 Completion 82.1% 48.5% 75.0% 62.5% 46.1% 48.4% 99.2%
      DL Completion 77.9% 38.0% 73.3% 75.7% 76.8% 83.3% 95.4%
      AA On Time 38.3% 36.4% 58.8% 31.3% 50.0% 55.6% 72.6%
      B6 On Time 23.8% 7.8% 9.0% 7.9% 17.1% 53.5% 53.5%
      DL On Time 56.5% 29.3% 29.9% 27.7% 53.3% 49.5% 55.8%

  12. Matt says:

    One interesting tidbit of information that should be included is that United chose that weekend Jan 3-6 to begin introducing pre-merger UA flight crews and pre-merger CO flight crews on routes traditionally operated by the opposite carrier…Great timing as they say as this led to a massive shortage of pilots and crew especially in Newark and at international locations. I had boarded a flight that was on-time from EWR to an international(European) destination and only after the doors were nearly closed did they announce/realize they had no copilots and were short staff. It would be interesting to find out how far into the integration process UA is in, and why they chose this particular period of time to begin implementing the changes.

  13. amy says:

    on jan. 6th i was in nyc, scheduled to fly to chicago from newark on southwest. my friend was in los angelos, scheduled to fly to nyc on jet blue. admittedly, we both had problems, but i received good advice from my daughter. instead of staying on the telephone waiting, or getting nowhere on the computer, i tried calling southwest in the middle of the night (3:00AM), got a real person, who rescheduled me, no charge for the change or the new fare, and it was all painless. no futile trips to the airport, no waiting on hold. my friend in california didn’t fare as well. jet blue’s site crashed, no phone response, no help what so ever. she finally had to buy another ticket, on a different airline, and has yet to get any refund, or satisfaction from jet blue. we were both inconvenienced,, but compared to her experience, mine was relatively painless. southwest is the best. have used them for years, and all in all have not been disappointed.

  14. No Fly Zone says:

    In simple terms, my take is that some carriers are “Fair Weather” airlines and, other than attempted positioning flights, essentially shut down when the snow flies. Others may make a genuine effort, but typically fail. Even more troubling is the on-time results (yours or DOT’s) when the weather is not a concern; it is horrible in many markets. Simple advice for those who are able to follow it is 1)stay home when possible and 2) have a PRIOR arrangement with a Flight Assistance service if one must travel during expect weather events. A good article and one that few have the experience to write. Thanks.

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