There Has to Be a Better Way to Handle Operational Disruption


I look forward to the week between Christmas and New Years being nice and quiet… but that didn’t happen this year. Why not? Well, a series of nasty storms rolled through the middle of the country and hit Texas pretty hard. The result? American saw its operation thrown into chaos, and United had a rough go of it as well.

That meant that we were working overtime at Cranky Concierge trying to help a bunch of stranded travelers… and that inevitably led to us having to do battle with the airlines. It really did feel like a battle. We struggled with airlines giving poor information and enforcing rules differently every time. In the end, everyone got where they needed to be, but it seemed like it should have been far easier than it was. Why do airlines make things so difficult?

On Monday, I sat down with Seth and Fozz at the Dots, Lines, and Destinations podcast, and we talked about this for about 45 minutes. You can listen to episode 226 “Stuck in IROPS hell” right here:

I’m planning on getting back to my normal schedule starting Monday.

11 comments on “There Has to Be a Better Way to Handle Operational Disruption

  1. Interesting discussion about airlines only truly caring for their highest tier elite fliers. The lower level status groups don’t really yield any benefits that cannot already be had by anyone with a credit card. I wonder what the fallout would be to drop the bottom level from the program? Or going to a true revenue only based system. It is a bit of a joke when airlines board and after they get done with all the elites there is hardly anyone left to get on. Maybe it’s a hub airport problem but as someone putting +50k miles down last year I surely don’t feel that high up in the hierarchy.

    1. I guess since airlines have a monopoly they can get away with this for now. Restaurants often go the extra mile to treat regulars well but if they ignore the other customers they won’t stay in business long. They would get killed via bad reviews and wouldn’t be able to cultivate new regulars.

      In the current environment everyone is obsessed with squeezing out every possible penny of profit and when things go wrong there are no redundancies built into the system.

      I’m thankful I don’t fly for work. Unfortunately the average customer simply accepts the bad service, looks for the cheapest fares and often don’t understand the rules of the fare.

      1. Rich

        It is actually an Oligopoly instead of a monopoly (see below) :) :)

        An oligopoly is a market form wherein a market or industry is dominated by a small number of large sellers (oligopolists).

        Oligopoly is a common market form where a number of firms are in competition. As a quantitative description of oligopoly, the four-firm concentration ratio is often utilized. This measure expresses, as a percentage, the market share of the four largest firms in any particular industry.

        Can we all say… American, Delta, United and Southwest?

  2. AA Res Agent here, I have to say the IROPS policy burns my britches. I no longer feel like I can encourage my friends to fly AA over other carriers. I used to tell them, “If something goes wrong, at least you know we can get you there.” Now I know I probably wouldn’t have too many options. Between that and the change fees that some carriers don’t charge… I work hard, I do my best to take good care of my customers, but I wish I had more to be proud of with my company. Breaks my heart because there things I do love about my job.

  3. Cranky, do you think there is a way to track or measure how quickly airlines recover from disruption? Seems like they won’t do anything about it unless we could start saying something like, well if Alaska cancels a flight the average flier will get to their final destination within 8 hours versus 12 hours on American.

    1. Seanny – Hmm, I can’t imagine there’s a way that we could access that from the public perspective. Certainly airlines themselves could measure it internally, but I doubt any of them even bother.

  4. There are a number of generalities in the podcast that don’t necessarily translate into reality for all airlines.

    The real question is why some airlines don’t do a better job of rebooking passengers when problems occur.

    Supposedly Delta automatically rebooks a delayed or cancelled flight such that inconvenienced passengers can scan their boarding pass at an automated kiosk or unused gate position and the new flight information and amenities if they are being offered. Delta advertised that capability several years ago. It also supposedly can sort the flight by priority so rebooks the highest value passengers first; it also supposedly can rebook on other airlines.

    Other airlines also use automated rebooking tools; I believe American said that they do not have that capability yet but are working on it.

    Given that Delta’s on-time and cancellation rate is better than most of the industry, they likely have better recovery rates than other airlines that cancel and delay more flights.

    Also, I’m not sure that I buy the argument about Texas as an excuse for IROPs; they have had harsher weather for the past few weeks but on-time statistics for the entire year still show similar on-time trends. Every region of the country is subject to severe weather.

    The most accurate reason for cancellations and delays is the schedule cushion that each airline uses and how many backup resources they maintain. It costs money to arrive early and also to have aircraft and crews on reserve to recover a delayed flight. Some airlines do it while others do so to a much less degree.

    1. Logan – I haven’t done one of those in awhile. Not sure any of these would be the most compelling, but I’ll think about something for the future.

  5. A bit late to the discussion, but… Last weekend I had a strange experience with American. I was flying Newark–Phoenix–Long Beach, a party of 4 (that’s myself + 3 children) on separate (but linked) reservations. The Newark–Phoenix flight was delayed; right before I turned off my phone for takeoff I received a text message that we were going to miss our connection, and as it was the last flight of the day we were rebooked for the next morning out of Phoenix. Several hours later we landed in Phoenix, and while we were at the gate waiting to deplane I got a text message that the Long Beach flight was substantially delayed. We ran across three concourses and made it to the plane about 15 minutes before the new departure time. Boarding hadn’t even started, but the gate agent wasn’t able to process us and sent us to customer assistance, a few gates down. At customer assistance I apologized for cutting in line, but the agent and other customers were OK with that because they understood that we actually had a chance of getting out of Phoenix that night. The customer assistance agent had to make several phone calls to remove our status as no-shows to the flight; by the time she did that, it was past the 10-minute cutoff for check-in, so she had to make additional phone calls, to make sure everyone knew that the plane was still at the gate and not going anywhere for a while (eventually departure got pushed back by another 25 minutes). And when she finally managed to get our no-show status removed, she had to send us back to the gate to check in for the flight. We did make it onto the plane in the end, and I’m highly appreciative of the work the two agents did to get us on (Mary at customer assistance and Tila at the gate).

    Bottom line: I appreciate American pro-actively protecting us on a future flight when it looked like we were going to miss our connection, but it appears that they were a bit too aggressive in removing us from our original connecting flight, which also ended up severely delayed. And if the customer is at the gate, the plane is at the gate, and boarding hasn’t started, why is it so difficult to put the passenger on the plane?

    1. Yes – that is a great question (especially for AA) why is it so hard to get a passenger on a plane when things don’t go right (or sometimes, even as planned?) Long lines, and the poor agents spending endless time on the phone to fix a reservation. I just don’t get it. It shouldn’t be that hard.

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