Midwest Weather Mess: Navigating a Winter Storm


As we all know by now, this past weekend was a mess for air travel as much of the country was buried under snow and high winds. It was a busy day for us at Cranky Concierge as well. We were following four clients and three of them had flights canceled. That’s no surprise considering how ugly things got. Look at this snapshot I took from FlightStats during the heart of the problem.

Weather Mess via FlightStats

In the end, the three people we followed were all able to get to their destinations thanks to a little bit of creativity. Each of these stories seems to have a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in weather and needs to try to find an alternate route. So I thought I would go through each to display lessons learned.

Lesson #1 – Always Look at Alternate Airports
One client was flying from Chicago to Northwest Arkansas for an important meeting with that big box retailed based down there. Both United and American fly the route, and this time he was on United. His flight was canceled relatively early and so was almost every other flight to Northwest Arkansas that day. There was at least one morning flight that did go, but it was too early for him to make.

We looked at connections through other airports, but we couldn’t get to the other airports from Chicago, so that wasn’t an option. We ended up finding an option to Springfield, Missouri at 6p that was still showing is going so we consider that since it was less than 100 miles away. In the end, the client decided to go to Tulsa instead which is also less than 100 miles. Several flights to Tulsa had been canceled that day, but I had a hunch this one would go. It was the last flight of the night heading into a major maintenance facility. My guess was that airplane needed to be in Tulsa. (Any American people know the answer?)

The client was doubly lucky because he had American miles that he was able to use to go to Tulsa. To make things even better, there were Saver seats available for only 12,500 miles to get down there. So, we found him a car rental and his flight made it down there without incident.

Remember, always look for alternate airports.

Lesson #2 – Don’t Trust the Airline to Find the Best Alternate
Another client was traveling from Ottawa to Boston. There’s one flight a day on Air Canada and that flight was canceled, so what did Air Canada do? The airline automatically rebooked him on the next nonstop flight available to Boston, which happened to be the next day. That wasn’t going to work, so we went online to find that there were plenty of options connecting through Montréal or Toronto. The system simply didn’t look at that as a possibility.

In the end we sat on interminable hold with Air Canada trying to find the best option to get him to where he needed to go. When we finally got through, I asked the Air Canada agent if she thought that Toronto or Montréal was running better in the weather since they were both affected. She suggested going through Toronto so that’s what he did. His connecting flight ended up being late but he did get into Boston that night as planned, in time for those morning meetings.

Remember, never trust the airline’s systems to give you the best option.

Lesson #3 – Check Your Flights Early When the Weather Goes South
The last passenger whose flight was canceled actually wasn’t traveling on Sunday at all. He was traveling on Monday morning, but it was the first flight out. Normally we wouldn’t look at early morning flights until the evening before, but in this case with all of the weather issues on Sunday we decided to start looking early. When weather goes bad, cancellations start early.

Sure enough by mid-day on Sunday, his flight on Monday morning had already been canceled. In this case Delta (the airline he was on) had auto-rebooked him on the next best option on Delta, which was through Atlanta to get to Florida. Unfortunately this still arrived later than originally planned and our client was going to miss his appointment.

We were able to call Delta and even though it was a weather delay, the airline was willing to put him on another airline. In the end, he flew nonstop on American at a slightly earlier time than his original Delta flight, easily making his appointment.

Whether this would’ve been possible had we not looked into options the day before is unclear. That later it gets, the better the chance that any seats on other flights would have been taken by someone else.

I know a lot of people were stranded on Sunday as cancellations were massive. Fortunately this was a lower travel time. Had it happened one week later during the Christmas rush there wouldn’t have been very many options for anyone. But hopefully if you were stuck on Sunday you were able to find a good option and get home. If not, keep some of these options in the back of your head for next time.

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27 comments on “Midwest Weather Mess: Navigating a Winter Storm

  1. Good advice and fascinating snapshots of the current travel turmoil.

    My experience has been that sometimes the airport ticket agents and rebooking agents are too eager to take what the system offers as a rebooking option at face value, too.

    It also helps to “know” your airline.

    A number of years ago, while flying USAir out of Atlanta to CLT, the aircraft had a mechanical– which left us stranded until the next morning’s nonstop. Or so the ticket agents said.

    Back then, I still could have gotten to Charlotte via US’s Philadelphia or Baltimore hubs (flights were still available to those cities from Atlanta), but these weren’t offered as an option. Nor did I suggest them.

    I drove instead to make an early morning meeting in North Carolina (much like your clients).

    Later, I had to fight US for a refund (these were the “bad old days” of US). It took a letter to Seth Schofield (or was it Stephen Wolf?) to do the trick, as I recall it.

    Looking back on it, I’ve realized that the ticket agent at the ATL airport was merely reading what was on his computer screen– what the system was telling him– as my best option for rebooking.

    I should have suggested the alternatives. I could have gotten there without the boring drive!


  2. My daughter was on BTV-IAD-LHR on Sunday, on a United XY award. IAD was one of the few places in the north-east and mid-west that was working smoothly, but the outbound IAD-BTV flight was delayed with a mechanical, and she was going to miss her connection.

    As she was waiting in line to see the check-in agent, I was on the phone to United (1P line). The phone agent said that the check-in agent was in the process of re-booking her through JFK on Delta. I did not like this, as JFK was showing 2+ hour delays. (As a side note, this is the first time I’ve seen an award ticket moved to an airline in a different alliance).

    The phone agent said that she had snagged the last seat on the late flight IAD-LHR, so I called my daughter to tell her to stop the process at the airport, but she was already done. The phone agent then undid the Delta booking, and reverted her to the delayed BTV-IAD and the late IAD-LHR.

    I watched the outbound IAD-BTV on FlightStats. It was on rolling 30 minute delays, then went to a earlier departure time (good news!), then to rolling 20 minute delays, then to 15 minutes, and finally left. She was going to have 90 minutes to connect at IAD, and the Delta BTV-JFK also just heading to BTV as a backup.

    She made it into LHR four hours later than planned. Interestingly, the fare basis for her ticket changed from XY to W during the UA-DL-UA transition.

    It made me realize that if I had been in her position, it would have been a crap-shoot as to whether I could keep on top of what was going on. I think that Cranky Concierge may well be the service for me!

    1. The change from XY to W isn’t that surprising. It probably means that they gave up the seat when they moved her to Delta and then had to get it back. But when they went to get it back, the XY (award seat) availability was gone, so they booked in the lowest class still available. In the end, it only matters to the accountants! Glad she got there.

  3. We learned in lesson #1 the client was going to Walmarts headquarters….LOL

    And lesson #3 is what I did when I worked for TWA if I or someone I knew was traveling. I had a supervisor sign in and would get the aircraft number (not flight number) of my flight and check what that aircraft was doing before my flight. I would then check the flight to make sure it was on time or had arrived if the night before. That way if I knew the aircraft wasn’t coming in, it was a very good chance my flight wasn’t going to operate if there was no other airplane to use in its place.

    1. Continental has had an inbound flight link on their status page for a while, and it seems to be 100% accurate. FlightAware also has this link, but I think it is dependent on the tail number field being filled out in the FAA system, and I’m not sure that this is always available.

  4. Brett–how were you able to get DL to put one of your customers on an AA flight if the only issue was weather? I didn’t think this was very common.

    1. Apparently I killed them with kindness. I honestly have no idea and was pleasantly surprised when the agent was willing to do it. They certainly had no idea who I was, so it wasn’t one of those, “hey maybe we can get good press if we do this” kind of things. I just called regular reservations and got a really nice guy who made it happen. Sometimes, it’s just luck of the draw.

      1. With weather causing cancellations all over the place, I’d guess that the airlines were more willing to reaccomodate onto other airlines. For every Delta passenger that American carried, Delta probably carried an American passenger somewhere else.

        There have been times where I was flying out of a small airport served by United Express and Horizon, and both airlines had to cancel flights due to fog. Horizon substituted the larger Q400 for the scheduled Q200 once the flights started going again, and I saw passengers boarding the Horizon flight with both Horizon and United boarding passes.

        1. From my days at an airline DL was the last airline to reaccomodate a passenger on. We has a list of airlines to use in order and DL was the use only under penalty of your own death, so DL was never used.

          The reason, airlines have agreements and the first airlines we used on the list would accept the ticket at face value. Others charged a prorated amount which varied from carrier to carrier. But DL was the only one who would charge the full -Y- fare (if coach) to the carrier. So if you have a passenger who paid $150 for that leg and put them on DL, DL would bill the airline for the highest -Y- fare which could be hundreds of dollars more. And I don’t mean the full Y0/YUP type you may buy, but the highest published Y which no one really pays.

          1. If this is still the case, it is even more mysterious why UA put my daughter on DL. She has no status, but the award ticket miles were from my account, and I am a 1P with 1.3 million miles. I wonder if that had anything to do with it?

      2. This happened to me also. I was on a AS award ticket and AA canceled my flight from ORD. I was able to convince a phone agent to put me on a United flight.

  5. I am surprised for #2 that AC just booked the next nonstop. It seems that’s a poor use of capacity, and it’d make sense to push those folks through the network in different ways.

    1. This was actually very simple. Depending on the cancellation load, they could have been reserving those seats for later cancellations, and also trying to alleviate congestion at YYZ, since the transborder area can get crowded at certain points, especially the customs and lounge facilities.

      1. Nah, it couldn’t have been that. Air Canada had nothing but room on nearly all possible alternates. My guess is that it’s just the way the algorithm works – sends people to the next nonstop.

  6. Brett–how were you able to get DL to put one of your customers on an AA flight if the only issue was weather? I didn’t think this was very common.

    Same here. I just got off talking to American Airlines, and they won’t reaccomodate using Cape Air for a client’s change in schedule.

    What’s your secret? :)

    1. I think Cape Air is different cause they don’t have reciprocal interline with AA. All the major carriers have that with each other for times like this.

      Is Cape Air Part 141? or Part 135? (maybe that has to do something with it?)

        1. A change in the client’s schedule isn’t the airline’s problem, so why should the airline reaccomodate to another carrier?

          Just a goodwill thing on their part. As CF eventually commented, he was lucky he got a sympathetic agent.

          Airlines actually can use others, but only those they have “e-ticketing agreements” with. If they put them on those they don’t, well…not sure they’d want to handle the (potential) accounting nightmares afterwards.

      1. I think Cape Air is different cause they don’t have reciprocal interline with AA. All the major carriers have that with each other for times like this.

        Sorry I overlooked your comment. Our internal tools indicated Cape Air has an e-ticket agreement with AA, which is why I called them to ask if they or we can use them in.

  7. We were stranded in San Francisco Sunday because Jet Blue canceled ALL of its flights between the west and east coasts including all nonstops. Your example that suggested not taking the airline’s first alternative turned into a nightmare for us. We had to stick with JetBlue because any other alternative would have cost us $500 additional per person. So we had three people working laptops checking alternative routes. We found two that were flying — one through Long Beach and one through Austin. However the JetBlue reservations people insisted they couldn’t find any such flights on their system and insisted they didn’t exist. We were forced to lose the day and take the Sunday redeye to NY. When we checked in at the airport the agent there was completely aware of the two flights the telephone agents said “didn’t exist”. Plus, he called the JetBlue cancellations “strategic cancellations” — meaning they knew the flights from SFO could fly to JFK, but they wanted to reposition their aircraft. This should cause some penalties for airlines and compensation for travelers.

    1. “strategic cancellations” is poor airline speak for canceling the flight so we can run a smoother operation. All airlines do this, but JetBlue didn’t used to. This made sense when they were smaller, but they got completely bit by this in the snow storms of 2007 where there major issues and they had people in airplanes for 5 or 10 hours on the ground.

      Seriously, the airlines are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Although in this case they decided to cancel this earlier rather than later, instead of stringing you along at the gate.

    2. Except for hitting the right reservations guy luckily on line, I think the two pieces of wisdom I have picked up traveling frequently apply. One of the first things my boss taught me about frequent travel (after “always know where the next meal is”) was “Always move forward”. If you can jump on the earlier flight, just do it (of course, that was also before mandatory standby fees…).

      Second thing I learned myself: get to the gate agent, they can do anything.

      If you can see how to get from point A (in front of the gate agent…) to point B by going through point C and D, the gate agent can probably make it happen and waive enough fees to not have you blow up mad in front of the podium.

      A little luck will trump the plan, but the plan can trump bad luck if you persevere.

      1. DAB you boss must have worked for an airline at one time….LOL. That’s the motto of airline employees who have to fly standby.

        Keep moving even if it’s not in the directon you want to go in.

        That went with know your options and your airlines route system.

        And you are right gate agents can do what other say they can’t because they don’t want you standing in front of them. They want to move as many people out as they can so their is less people for them to deal with.

  8. I’ve had plenty of gate agents help me, especially when I was pleasant, flexible, knew my options, and appreciative. I really hate it when I see someone giving a gate agent a hard time over something they have absolutely no control over.

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