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.

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