A Stellar Holiday Operation Leaves the Media Digging Deep for Bad Stories


As usual, I loaded up the car and headed with the family to Arizona for Thanksgiving weekend. Other than occasional slow traffic and long lines at the Love’s Travel Stop in Quartzite, there wasn’t much risk of massive external delays. For those traveling by air, however, there’s always the seemingly-imminent risk of a true meltdown, stranding passengers all over. None of that happened. In fact, it was a remarkably good weekend for the country’s airlines.

Looking at Tuesday through late afternoon Sunday (when I had to pull the Anuvu data to write this post), not a single airline had canceled more than 1 percent of flights. Looking at the top 10 mainland US carriers (including regionals), 164 flights were canceled in total out of 127,420 for an impressive 99.9 percent completion factor.

Up at the top end, Sun Country didn’t cancel a single flight the whole weekend. JetBlue surprisingly canceled only one. Kudos to them both.

Frontier was the worst with only 99.7 percent while United was next a 99.8 percent, just slightly below American. They only slipped that “low” thanks to some snow rolling through Denver over the weekend and a little Chicago snow yesterday. To be clear, that is not low at all. That is a great result for everyone.

As for on-time performance…

Arrivals Within 14 Minutes of Schedule Nov 21 – Late Afternoon Nov 26 by Marketing Airline

Data via Anuvu

Any day JetBlue clears 70 percent, let alone 75 percent, is a magical time for the industry. How did it go so well?

Airlines have figured out they need to staff up around holidays to avoid the wrath of Secretary Pete and the media, so they are better prepared. But then it also takes a little luck with the winter to get them through.

Things started off with the potential for ugliness when weather rolled across the eastern half of the country before the holiday. The worst of it was on Tuesday, but it passed by mostly overnight with the biggest impact on Wednesday in Boston.

Behind the rain were some gusty winds, but against the worst of that blew through overnight when it was less likely to impact flights, and the wind direction didn’t cause too much trouble anyway. The rest of the weekend was pleasantly placid for almost the entire country save a little snow in Denver over the weekend and passing through Chicago yesterday. That’s the biggest factor that determines operational success.

All of this success was very bad news for the media, which had seemingly blocked a few minutes at the top of the news to announce all of the horrible airline problems that would undoubtedly have plagued the nation. The failure of that to materialize didn’t stop NBC from trying to scare travelers. The headline read, “Thousands of flights delayed as holiday travel gets underway.”

Tom Costello breathlessly started off his report by proclaiming “this is the problem.” But he wasn’t talking about air travel. He was talking about traffic on the roads making it slow going for people getting to the airport in DC. By the time he got into the airlines themselves, he noted “we’ve only got a couple of dozen cancellations. Make no mistake though, this is an airline stress point.”

Fox News didn’t bother talking about actual delays, instead it tried to pre-scare people by telling them about tools to help travelers when their flights were delayed or canceled. And it’s Fox News, so it certainly can’t leave politics out of it. It found a way to run a story saying flights were unsafe this holiday, because air marshals had been deployed to the southern border instead. I’m not even going to link to that story because of how stupid it is.

Only the Durango Herald had a real story to report. Two flights were delayed a long time thanks to a dumping of snow.

With such little actual news, some media outlets instead decided to channel their favorite clickbait blogger and just focus on the stupid and absurd. Yes, by now, we’ve probably all seen video of that women on the Frontier flight who dropped her pants to go to the bathroom in the aisle because she couldn’t hold it. (If you haven’t seen it and want to, you can Google that too.)

I have a deep hatred for stories like that, because they add absolutely no news value. But on the bright side, if that’s the best that the media can come up with during a holiday weekend, things certainly did go very, very well.

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24 comments on “A Stellar Holiday Operation Leaves the Media Digging Deep for Bad Stories

  1. Good summary, Brett. Hope everything goes well a month from now for the Christmas flights.

    Not to turn the comments into a string of anecdotes from people about their flying experiences, but I was pleasantly surprised flying AA down the East Coast & back for the holidays, with a connection each way. The first leg of my return trip was delayed early enough in the day that AA was able to offer me a number of different rebooking options (including several to nearby airports), and (while I would have liked to have seen more information shown) rebooking to a different flight through AA’s phone app was easy & painless… Even got a window/aisle seat on all of my flights, which I wasn’t expecting on a basic economy ticket, though I did have to gate check my rollerboard to the baggage claim on both flights on the 737s, as I was in the last group to board. All in all, it was much better than I was expecting for AA, and about as good as you can reasonably get over the holidays.

    Oh, and as a final bonus, while I saw “BARCLAYS CREDIT CARD” on the screen by the FA jumpseat as an option for a pre-recorded announcement on one of the planes (right after “CARRYON BAGS” and “SAFETY DEMO” or similar), it wasn’t played on that flight, and I only heard the credit card pitch on 1 of my 4 flights, so I count myself very lucky. :-)

    1. I’m going to echo your comments, I flew AA one direction and DL the other and was impressed with American more than I’ve been in the past.

  2. Cranky,
    All in all a very great post with spot on commentary about how by and large this was a great holiday weekend for all of us who were flying. One question/observation, it appears that Charlotte had a disruption about mid-afternoon on Sunday. Is this a case of perception being stuck waiting for a very delayed flight versus reality, or was it really that bad Sunday afternoon? It seemed a lot of flights departing around 1PM left hours delayed or were late arriving if they were due around 1 and then naturally the rest of the day was playing catch-up.

    1. Dan – Definitely something going on in Charlotte. Anuvu data shows no cancellations at all yesterday, but for departures, the arrivals within 14 minute metric was 69.8%. American was 69.9%.

      1. Nothing got reported locally… other than the fact that thanks to the airport’s construction (well, not really – the fact that the airport’s access from the interstate is just another exit… dual turn lane with a traffic light at the exit ramp and not meant for half the amount of traffic put through) it was taking 40-75 minutes to get from the interstate to the parking deck entrances, a distance of about a mile. The police had to further block lanes to escort parking busses up to the terminal. I last flew a week ago and it took 20 minutes to get the last 1/3 mile to the curbside while on the remote parking bus. Doesn’t help the airport parking is full and on reservation only and people get up to it to act like this is something new.

  3. Just like “the cat in the tree” story on the evening local news, back in the days of just 3 tv channels…. that story meant there is nothing else happening in the city…. good for travelers, good for all actors in this play!!!

  4. As my friend Alyssa Simmonds once said… “the news is STUPID!” No truer words have ever been uttered.

  5. One of the reasons the travel experience has improved is because of the scrutiny that airlines received in the wake of meltdowns like SWA’s, or fun facts like United FA’s not getting paid until the doors close (https://shorturl.at/ioDLQ). True, news media looks for the bad news first — if it bleeds, it leads,” as the maxim goes — but it’s that attention that brings problems to light and helps get them resolved.

    1. Dan – You’re giving too much credit to the media for this. FAs haven’t been paid until doors close as standard procedure. It’s only recently that airlines have started paying for boarding time, and that’s not a response to media. That’s a response to Delta wanting to keep unions off property.
      Other airlines will inevitably follow.

      That being said, media attention to something like Southwest’s meltdown is good media attention. If they focused on actual problems then that might get even better results instead of muddying the water with non-stories.

  6. I like your take on the weekend travel and media speculation. I work in the PR and media fields and it annoys me when they have nothing new to report, so they turn to non-news, speculation, talking-head “experts” and repeated updates on nothing. We here in little ‘ole Wichita probably accounted for a decent chunk of those cancellations as we got about 8″ of snow — a record — and our airport closed for the better part of Saturday and Sunday morning.

  7. Our family flew Southwest (our first time flying the airline) going from Houston to Baltimore and back over the holiday week and were quite impressed. The plane was 100% full, but we took off on time and arrived early. An uneventful set of flights which is the best kind!

  8. It’s also fun to see the difference between local news coverage. Here in Tampa, where the airport is very well-regarded (even a source of civic pride), the local news did accurately remind people to leave for the airport early because the roads were busy, book your parking in advance, and allow more time for security, but that once you got to the airport lines were long but everything was generally moving smoothly and you should just relax and have your picture taken with Phoebe (the giant flamingo) because it’s all good. Even Fox13 remained calm.

    OTOH, I’m sure they had reporters doing stand-ups outside Newark warning of everything this side of a plague of frogs falling from the sky, because everyone hates the Port Authority even when it’s not spectacularly screwing up and EWR is…well, EWR, so the default setting is “we’re all gonna be late and miserable and doomed…”

      1. Heh, reporters probably didn’t want to bother to go to Jersey. When I lived in NYC, they usually went for LGA, but since LGA doesn’t look like a bus terminal in Camden any more I’d guess they’ve decided to give it a break.

    1. I do 2-3 trips a year to TPA, and it really is one of the best O&D airports in the country, especially considering its size & passenger volume… Airy & spacious, well-maintained, and VERY quick to get in & out of.

      On Black Friday I made it from curb to gate in 7 minutes when departing from TPA (no wait for PreCheck), and I’ve clocked it at 12 minutes from wheels on the runway to feet on the curb before, even when sitting in the back of a 737. Great, great airport.

      My biggest complaint with TPA is the traffic that can build up on I-275 & I-75, especially during the snowbird season, but the TPA area traffic is still better than in many other metro areas.

  9. CF – right on! The media that we have inflicted on us is nothing short of awful! And, the aviation business is usually an easy target. Even some relatively good blogs (present company excepted – of course!) have a habit of ‘glossing over’ situations that they don’t fully understand.
    So – don’t ever change! You do great work, and it is very much appreciated!
    (I just can’t want for your comments on AA’s response to ASTA!)

    1. You might not get much from me on the ASTA response. If American wants to tank its business, it can go right ahead and do it. I don’t think regulation is the right way to handle this.

  10. A truly impressive operation for all of the airlines this past week. When I saw the forecast, especially for the East Coast, I thought it was going to be a bloodbath but I likely had more delays on I-35 than most people did flying.

  11. The news always does a terrible job of covering aviation. And the general public has no idea of how airlines operate, so they are able to digest these non-news stories. If you want viewers and to stoke rage, just show endless b-roll footage of children crying in an airport terminal on xmas eve. Every holiday, every year, its the same recycled stories: “TSA is expecting record-breaking passengers” and “Rain, snow, ice, thunderstorms, floods, and locusts expected to snarl holiday travel; if you’re traveling through NYC, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Boston, Detroit, Seattle, or Dallas, don’t even bother.”

  12. It is very much true that the airlines had one of the best holiday periods in decades if not ever esp. since the TSA says that it screened more people than any other day in history. Weather was fairly agreeable but ATC delays did start at NE airports last night although it was late enough in the day that flights were delayed and there was an impact on a systemwide basis but cancellations were avoided. Major weather issues just happened to be in less populated areas of the country and away from major airports for most of the weekend.
    Keep in mind that capacity is very restrained including in the NE because of ATC limitations and aircraft delivery delays so airlines probably could have added more flights if they had the planes and crew to do so and an ATC system to support them. If this is repeated again for Christmas/winter holidays and it likely will be, airlines could have a very nice end of the year financially including for low cost carriers.
    There was a lot of political pressure for airlines to clean up their operations but I hope the airline industry touts not only how well it did but also how much better US airlines are operating compared to every other region of the world including Canada.
    Airlines have restaffed even if US ATC has not but the system is operationally in a pretty good position. Major storms at major airports are inevitable this winter but it should be obvious that the cause is the same delays that slow down every other type of transportation in inclement weather and no longer because airlines are unprepared.

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