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):
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.