Saturday, December 19, 2009

Massive Flight Cancellations in Northeast, and Making Some Tough Calls at Airline Headquarters

PHOTO: What are you smiling about, pal?

Flights were scrubbed from the boards in huge numbers at airports in the Mid-Atlantic states as a severe snowstorm moved up the East Coast.

By all current indications, air travel in the Northeast could be impacted for days, and the ripple effect will be felt on connections throughout the country. Airlines will be scrambling to get idled or displaced airplanes and crews rescheduled and repositioned -- and to re-accommodate passengers in a system that, even under normal conditions, has no slack built in.

So forget what I said the other day about there being no Christmas travel crunch. With tangles from today's snarls stretching into the early part of the week, there now will be a Christmas travel crunch. Tens of thousands of passengers are already looking to make new travel arrangements.

As of 7 p.m. Eastern time today, here were some of the numbers of cancellations, according to

--Reagan National: 463 arrivals and departures canceled of a total 531 scheduled for the day. Reagan is essentially shut to commercial traffic till tomorrow morning.

--Dulles: 493 canceled of 834 total scheduled.

--Baltimore-Washington: 450 out of 574.

--Philadelphia: 595 of 1,042.

--Newark: 412 out of 1,132.

--LaGuardia: 263 of 640.

--JFK: 407 of 1,170.

The storm was expected to hit the New York area tonight, but as of 7 p.m. Eastern time, less than an inch of snow had fallen, with temperatures around 25 degrees. So it's apparent that airlines were preemptively canceling flights at the New York airports well before any serious snow accumulation in the area.

[UPDATE: At 10 p.m. Eastern time, the National Weather Service was still predicting a significant amount of snow in blizzard conditions for the New York area overnight.]

On the now evidently small chance that that storm, after clobbering Washington and Philadelphia, peels off into the Atlantic tonight without clobbering Newark, Kennedy or LaGuardia, airlines are going to have some explaining to do about why they canceled so many flights into and out of the New York airports today.

On the other hand, the airlines can defend preemptive cancellations by saying, accurately, that we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. The last thing the airlines want right now is publicity, in the nation's media capital, about passengers sitting stranded on tarmacs for hours on end, with pictures of little Susie desperately asleep on her Teddy Bear in a darkened idled cabin. If New York gets hit hard by a blizzard, and you're an airline, your smart play is maybe to keep as many of your planes out of New York as possible, on the bet that the weather reports are accurate. Then you sort it out as best as you can on Sunday and Monday.)

I do wish the airlines the best of luck in sorting this incipient mess out. At airlines' headquarters right now, some of the best logistical transportation managers in the world are working all night -- and all day tomorrow -- to get the trains, so to speak, running. I see them now. To me, it sounds like the unexplainabe thrill of running a big newspaper city-desk on a really big breaking story -- and then having to argue a day later with some male or female grammar schoolmarm on a news desk who insists that there is no such word as unexplainable, that it's inexplicable --- which is not really the same thing, is it, and I find the idea uneatable. not inedible.

One of these days I need to spend some time reporting on what these men and women at airline headquarters really do, with increasingly limited options, in a weather crisis like this. You and I get to quarterback their results in a couple of days, but they are making the tough calls at this moment.

Meanwhile, delays remain high at Atlanta and the ripple effect is hitting Chicago and other big hubs. Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are also reporting major delays because of heavy rain.

Most airlines have now put emergency change policies into effect, meaning you can change a flight in affected areas without paying the usual penalty fee. My advice: If you can stay out of the air for the next several days, do it.

By the way, the FAA's worthless (but supposedly real-time) flight-delays status page at this moment is showing no delays -- let alone cancellations -- at any of the nation's airports, even as chaos mounts. What planet is the FAA monitoring? Your tax dollars at work!


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