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Updated Friday, February 8, 2013 at 12:01 PM

How airlines prepare for big storms

By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
Associated Press Airlines Writer

As the Northeast braces for its largest winter storm in more than a year, airlines are already employing a strategy that has served them well in recent years: Cancel flights early and keep planes and crews - and passengers - away from snowed-in airports.

Up to 3 feet of snow was forecast along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor from the New York City area to Boston and beyond. In response, the major airlines plan to shut down their Northeast operations by Friday afternoon, and canceled nearly 1,100 flights for Saturday.

That means emergency planning for Boston's Logan International Airport, the three major airports in the New York Metropolitan area and smaller airports around the region.

Here are some questions and answers about what the airlines are doing:

Q: What are the airlines doing differently?

A: Just a few years ago, a powerful storm dumping two feet of snow on the Northeast would have brought havoc to some of the region's busiest airports. Passengers would sit on a plane for hours, hoping to take off. Families slept on the airport floor with luggage piled up around them. The only meal options came from vending machines.

Now, having learned from storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, U.S. airlines have rewritten their severe weather playbooks. They've learned to cancel flights early and keep the public away from airports, even if that means they'll have a bigger backlog to deal with once conditions improve.

Travelers can still face dayslong delays in getting home, but the advanced cancellations generally mean they get more notice and can wait out the storm at home or a hotel, rather than on a cot at the airport.

Q: Why is it smarter to cancel early?

A: It allows the airlines to tell gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews to stay home - keeping them fresh once they're needed again.

And by moving planes to airports outside of the storm's path, airlines can protect their equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen.

These precautions make good business sense. They also help the airlines comply with government regulations that impose steep fines for leaving passengers stuck on planes for three hours or more. And they reduce the chance of horror-story footage of stranded passengers showing up on the nightly news.

Q: When did airlines change their storm preparations?

A: Things changed almost exactly six years ago. JetBlue was late to cancel flights as a massive snowstorm hammered the East Coast on Valentine's Day weekend in 2007. Passengers were stranded on planes for hours. When the storm finally cleared, other airlines resumed flights but JetBlue's operations were still a mess.

Other airlines took note. Severe weather manuals were updated. Reservation systems were programmed to automatically rebook passengers when flights are canceled. And travelers now receive notifications by email, phone or text message.

Q.: What should passengers do?

A.: Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, says that any traveler planning to fly through the Northeast, or has a connection at one of its airports, should "change their travel plans immediately." He recommends using the airlines' websites over potentially backed up call centers.

In general, passengers shouldn't rush to the airport in hopes of getting a flight before the snow falls. Check with your airline, which will likely cancel your flight before the storm is near your airport.

The good news is that if you miss your connection, the airlines will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. The bad news is that next flight could be a while if you're traveling to or from a city that is buried under a foot or more of snow.

If you're unhappy with your rebooked flight pick up the phone and call the airline directly. Or go onto the airline's website and even consider sending a Tweet.

Q.: How tough is it for the airlines to get operations back to normal?

A.: Once the clouds clear, flights won't start up immediately.

When Superstorm Sandy hit the New York area, JetBlue's Rob Maruster, the airline's chief operating officer, equated starting up the airline again to putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It's not about staffing levels, but an overall game plan that makes sense. "At a certain point, putting more hands on the table doesn't help get it solved faster," he said.

The airlines will need to ask a lot of questions before bringing in planes.

First, are the runways open?

Next, is there public transit to get workers to the airport? If not, does the airline have enough staff staying at nearby hotels that can be bused in?

Finally, the airline has to check on all the other people needed to run an airport: the Transportation Security Administration, customs officials, caters, fuel trucks and even the people who push wheelchairs through the terminal.

Baker, the FligthAware CEO, notes that the timing of this storm does work in the airlines' favor.

"Fortunately, Saturday is the lightest travel day of the week, so airlines can use the day to restart their operations in time for the Sunday evening travel rush," Baker says.


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