Why Airlines are Canceling So Many Flights for Hurricane Sandy


If you’ve been trying to get to, from, or through the northeast US this week, you know that a lot of flights have been canceled. That’s really an understatement. Thousands of flights have been canceled each of the last couple days. Why is that? Couldn’t the airlines have canceled fewer flights? It’s not as easy as you might think.

Of course, the most obvious reason these flights have been canceled is safety. Hurricanes come with all kinds of dangerous effects… high winds, thunderstorms, and flooding for example. Trying to fly in those conditions can end very, very badly and no airline wants to take that risk.

But airlines usually take it one step further. While it might be technically safe to fly in some marginal situations, airlines generally opt to play it safe and not go. This is somewhat safety-related, but it’s also related to passenger comfort. After all, how would you like to fly in conditions like this (sorry, but I couldn’t embed the video so you have to click):

Typhoon Takeoff

That’s an extreme example. That flight probably was unsafe, but the passengers lived to tell the tale. Still, airlines don’t want to fly into something like that.

People on Sunday might have been surprised, however, to find flights canceled even though the weather wasn’t bad at all that day. Surely they could have run those flights, right? Well, yes, in theory. But the problem is that airlines are very complex networked operations and that means there are a lot of indirect reasons to cancel flights.

Let’s say you have a flight that was supposed to go into New York on Sunday night. Well, that airplane was probably going to stay overnight and fly back out in the morning. The airlines wanted to get their airplanes out of town before the weather started picking up on Monday, so they couldn’t operate the flight into town Sunday night or it would have been stuck.

Meanwhile, flights out of New York operated until late on Sunday because they wanted those airplanes and their employees to get away. After all, airplanes can sustain a lot of damage sitting on the ground in a hurricane. They don’t have to fly to be in danger.

If you live outside the northeast, you may have seen a lot more airplanes at your local airport. I was in San Diego this weekend, and driving up yesterday morning I saw a bunch of airplanes parked on the north side of the field. As I went north, I saw airplanes stacked in Orange County. And when I got up to Long Beach, there were more than the usual number of JetBlue aircraft on the ground. Those were all there to wait out the storm.

And you know what this means. As soon as the weather is gone, it’s not as simple as just snapping your fingers and getting flights to operate. Not only are there no airplanes ready to take people out of town but there are also no crews. I mean, there are some crews, but many will be scattered where they aren’t supposed to be. When flights cancel, crew schedules get thrown into chaos.

So airlines will start by sending ferry flights from hubs into the affected areas. They’ll fill them with crews to operate other flights. Flights will start to trickle in from the hubs, often the bigger airplanes come in on the early side to operate international flights.

Once airplanes start coming in, then they can start going back out again. But just because the airplane is there doesn’t mean the right crew is there to fly it. It’s a delicate dance to get an operation started back up again and it doesn’t happen quickly.

What’s the bottom line here? Be patient. It’s not going to be easy to get things moving again once the airports are cleared to reopen and start receiving flights. At this point, we don’t even know when the airports will be able to even reopen again. If you don’t need to travel this week, I’d seriously think about changing your plans.

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15 comments on “Why Airlines are Canceling So Many Flights for Hurricane Sandy

  1. My wife was one of the people that was to be potentially impacted by the cancellations. She was supposed to fly LAS-PHL-BGM today, but the PHL-BGM leg was cancelled in Saturday (and I think the LAS-PHL leg was also cancelled later). I offered to call US Airways for her and only had to wait on hold for 30 mins (a miracle based on some of the stories I’ve read), and actually spoke with a pleasant agent. While she sounded exhausted, she was energetic enough and started off with “what would you like me to look for, because I don’t have much”. I had already looked it up, and the best chance (at least from my perspective) was LAS-CLT-SYR (it’s worth the drive). The agent quickly indicated that that would not be problem (even though she was changing arrival cities from BGM to SYR), and had her booked right away. Her flight leaves Vegas shortly, so fingers crossed. But all in all, I usually can’t say anything good about US Airways but, in this instance, their customer service was fantastic considering the situation.

  2. I’m a JFK based United flight attendant. A bunch of us are laying over near LAX and SFO for 60-70+ hours waiting for operations to resume so we can work the transcons back to JFK.

    So far this is the longest and most stressful layover of my career. Hopefully the schedule holds true and we can return home tomorrow (Wednesday) morning.

  3. It’s not only planes/crews out of whack, but roads may be closed around an airport even if the airport is open and planes can fly. Maybe airport workers can not get to work so the airport may be open but can’t really operate.

    Were catering facilities flooded so they can not prepare food for international flights. Smaller one level airports will be flooded so would be able to be used for awhile, so small towns may suffer longer with no service.

    It’s not like a twister or earthquake that comes and goes and if you are uneffected, then great. Hurricanes/floods can effect an area for a long time since they do more damage in a larger area.

  4. I live in New York City. Right now I am primarily worrying about the subway system getting up and running again. The other concern is that LGA Airport seems to have been extensively damaged since its below Sea Level and quite a lot of it juts out into the Long Island Sound and it was damaged from the Storm Serge. They have announced that EWR and JFK should open tomorrow but LGA will be closed for the foreseeable future.

    Happy I don’t have any trips coming up!

  5. Another thing you didn’t mention is the safety of the aircraft. There is not enough hanger space for all those overnighting aircraft (They may not even be safe. Last year several expensive corp jets were destroyed at IAD, when snow caused the hanger roof to collapse). Would you want to leave your multi million dollar aircraft on the ramp, at the mercy of wind driven cargo bins or baggage carts?

    1. “Meanwhile, flights out of New York operated until late on Sunday because they wanted those airplanes and their employees to get away. After all, airplanes can sustain a lot of damage sitting on the ground in a hurricane. They don?t have to fly to be in danger.”

      I thought the whole section here and about seeing planes in weird cities covered it pretty well.

    1. It’s very hard to know when flight schedules will be back to normal at this point. At least JFK and Newark have reopened, so LaGuardia remains the real wildcard.

  6. When Hurricane Issac passed close to South Florida, most operations were suspended at MIA and FLL. Winds reached close to 50 mph sustained, so the airport closed for a few hours. I have never seen MIA so empty, there were no AA planes at any gate and only one with an engine missing sitting outside the major hanger off of Runway 8R/26L east side. It actually took 5 days before there were no cancellations in all airline schedules. However, it actually took almost two weeks before the airlines caught up. I work for SuperShuttle and had many passengers arriving who told me they were supposed to fly weeks earlier, but because of fully booked flights had to wait. This included International Airlines like LAN, TAM, Taca, Copa, Aerolinas Argentinas, and Santa Barbara to South America.

  7. It looks like every terminal at LaGuardia has become a “Marine Air Terminal.” I wish all of the people in the northeast the best. And to the airline employees who are working hard to get things back in order, I offer a big “thank you.”

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