Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Flight Cancellations By the Numbers: Here We Go Again

Once again, the news media are shrugging off the staggering accumulation of flight cancellations in the big snowstorm whaling on the mid-Atlantic region today. Lost in the lazy reporting is the real story: the severe back-up in air travel as passengers try to re-book flights that were canceled.

Thank God, I haven't seen any reports yet today referring to "scores" of flights being canceled. As I said during the previous blizzard last week, no non-media speaker of American English has used that term (in singular or plural form) to refer to a number since Abraham Lincoln.

No, today the reporting is of "hundreds" of cancellations.

That, as usual, is not only inaccurate, but useless for readers and viewers who need reliable information in a travel emergency.

Try "thousands" of cancellations today. And mounting.

UPDATE: Stop the engines! CNN is reporting accurate flight information! Good for CNN, which I criticized last week for referring its readers and viewers to that ridiculously useless FAA flight-delays site (see below for more on the FAA site).

Anyway, as I said last week, you can easily look these things up on Web sites such as, which reports real-time airport operations.

Here are the actual numbers of flat-out flight cancellations as of noon EST today at major airports, mostly hubs, in the mid-Atlantic region. Keep in mind, I'm only counting the biggest airports here, and not the several dozen mid-sized or smaller airports that also are essentially wiping their flight-boards clean today.

Newark -- 869 departure and arrival cancellations.

JFK -- 652.

Philadelphia -- 766.

Reagan -- 869.

Dulles -- 485.

Baltimore/Washington -- 393.

Why is this big news? Well, as anyone with a pulse who covers air travel ought to be required to realize, the U.S. air-travel system has no slack, and has been operating at near-capacity (that is, most planes full on most flights) for well over a year. For two years, crews and airplanes have been scheduled to meet only routine daily needs, without any real backup.

Thousands of flights were canceled during last week's storm, meaning that people booked on those flights later re-flooded an already at-capacity system when they tried to re-book. Thousands more during the current storm are adding a lot more depend on a system that is already impossibly overtaxed and snarled.

Airline schedulers, who for the most part do the Herculean job of keeping the system running relatively smoothly during routine operations, are up against the neigh-impossible -- with crews and planes not where they are supposed to be. And the passenger demand is severely backed up and will be for many, many days if not weeks.

By the way, both last week and this week, airlines preemtively canceled thousands of flights well before snow began falling. An argument can be made, I think (and I intend to pursue it once I am able to sort out the mess) that airlines went overboard on preemptive cancellations because they are worried about the new Transportation Department policy that provides sharp fines for every flight that sits stranded on a tarmac for more than three hours.

Unintended consequences? An industry brazenly determined to demonstrate its opposition to the new rule by essentially shutting down rather than accepting passengers who might be the cause of big fines?

That's the story.

Meanwhile, the sad-sack FAA air-traffic delays site (at that the media always refer readers to is, again, utterly worthless today. Hey, it's a Snow Day in Washington! Nobody needs to be on the job! As of noon, the FAA map shone merrily with green dots (meaning no delays) over every major airport in the U.S. Here's a link to that infamous, useless, supposedly live-time FAA map, as of noon EST today:

Flight Delay Information - Air Traffic Control System Command Center

Again, your tax dollars at work!

UPDATE: And for pure bureaucratic asininity, please do read the anonymous comment to this post (clearly from a government worker on government time) saying that the map shows all green dots because there are no delays, just cancellations. Again, your tax dollars at work!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You clearly don't understand the FAA delay map. It's a representation of the DELAYS at an airport. There are NO delays in DC because there are NO flights.
It is not a representation of the airlines cancelled flights - you need a different site for that.
The fact that you don't understand that BASIC fact makes the rest of your information suspect, at best.