The day before the midterm in my core ops class, a panicked student emailed me. United airlines had informed him that the only way he was getting to DC for the weekend was if he left early — ie if he missed the scheduled exam. In advance of a big snow storm, United wasn’t just canceling flights, they were proactively trying to get passengers to leave early. According to the New York Times (Airlines Cancel Flights Before Storms Arrive, and E-Mail the Passengers, Feb 13), this has become a common practice across the industry:
This winter, carriers have increasingly chosen not to gamble and are canceling flights before snow begins to fall. They can then communicate with passengers earlier to allow them to change their plans without penalty, possibly getting out of town before bad weather arrives or skipping a trip altogether. The airlines’ main goal is to make sure pilots, passengers and planes do not get stuck at snowbound airports. …
Though the airlines lose money when they cancel flights, they can potentially lose more if they keep flying and risk having snowbound crews and planes out of place once the storm passes.
There are a number of reasons behind this including mistakes made in the past. Scott McCartney, who writes the Middle Seat column for the Wall Street Journal laid it out this way when he was interviewed on Marketplace (What’s the snowstorm costing airlines?, Feb 11):
I think in general airlines operations have grown more cautious. And not just because of the JetBlue episode, the American episode. Delta’s had it. They’ve all had their different experiences. Continental Express last summer in Rochester, Minn., a plane stuck over night because of a weather situation. So they’ve gotten more cautious about trying to fly in bad weather. Not from a safety perspective, but just from the standpoint of that plane could get diverted somewhere, we could have a problem, we could end up with people stranded. And the government’s gotten involved in stranding issues and I think in general airlines just say the prudent thing to do is not try.
So what is the best way for airlines to handle these large disruptions? Getting people out early is obviously a good plan if you have the capacity to take them early. Those seats are going to fly empty otherwise and you can effectively address passengers’ concerns for free. There is, of course, the question of whom you offer this to. Starting with those returning home seems reasonable. After that, I suspect that you offer this service to those who are planning to be at the destination for several days. Someone who planning to be on the ground for less than 24 hours would be a bad candidate. If you expect that you won’t be able to get them in, it’s unlikely that you will be able to get them out in time. Maybe for once leisure travelers win over road warriors.
The real winners, however, may be the people who don’t get called. Unless the airport totally shuts down, some planes are going to get out. If a large number of flights have been preemptively canceled, servicing the remaining flights gets much easier. As the Times article notes:
The airlines are often not canceling all of their flights at an affected airport, choosing to trim their schedules instead. That gives them more time to do de-icing and comply with air traffic control restrictions. On Friday, for instance, Delta Air Lines canceled 1,100 of the 6,000 flights it had scheduled for Friday, many at its Atlanta hub. But other flights took off Friday despite the bad weather, part of a strategic decision to maintain international flights and flights to other big cities. “By reducing the number of flights that are scheduled to go through, that means that the flights that are still scheduled will operate normally,” said Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman.
This is just basic queuing theory.
It will be interesting to see how long airlines stick with this. It has worked well so far but the weather forecasts have also been pretty much on target. They have said Washington was going to get slammed, and Washington has been slammed. Forecasts aren’t always so accurate. It may just take a few times of “overreacting” to a bad storm that doesn’t come to get airlines to be a little more aggressive in getting flights out.