Friday, August 26, 2011

Airlines Finally Pull the Trigger, Cancelling Thousands of Flights

Most airlines had avoided preemptively cancelling flights for this weekend as the hurricane headed for the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Till late this afternoon, that is. Now, given the urgency with which New York City has approached disaster preparations for this storm, airlines are pulling the trigger and announcing large numbers of flight cancellations. Here's a link.

Update: Delta said this afternoon that it is suspending service for Sunday at Kennedy; LaGuardia; the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport; and Philadelphia.

Minutes after Delta sent out its announcement, United-Continental said it would suspend operations starting Saturday at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia, including regional flights operated as United Express, Continental Express and Continental Connection. The merged airline said it plans to resume operations at these airports on Monday morning.

United and Continental will also suspend operations at the following airports on Saturday: Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, and Norfolk.

United-Continental said it has now preemptively canceled a total of about 2,300 flights for Saturday and Sunday. Air France also said it is cancelling flights to and from New York and other Northeast airports this weekened.

Till late this afternoon, JetBlue had stood out in the pack because it decided yesterday to cancel about 900 flights. It's not clear to me why the others dawdled. As I said earlier, one reason could be that they were looking out a different window than the government officials evacuating coastal regions and closing down mass transit in New York City and elsewhere. Airlines worry about wind a lot more than rain, and the major impact of this hurricane is likely to be flooding on a very large scale. Another possible reason is that airlines were playing an elaborate shell-game trying to squeeze out as much revenue as possible while moving airplanes out of the hurricane zone.

Also, the airlines are barely profitable, and hoping to hold onto every dollar of revenue they can get here near the end of the summer travel season, with the air-travel system already at capacity and fully booked for the Labor Day weekend ahead. A canceled flight this weekend is likely to represent basic lost revenue, given the tight capacity's inability to accommodate a sudden surge of extra demand, once the air-travel system gets past the storm.

On then other hand, maybe the airline weather forecasters simply don't (or didn't) think the storm was going to be as calamitous as it sounded. I say again, if this storm should happen to fizzle out before New York, there are going to be a whole lot of extremely angry citizens, and some very embarrassed politicians having to defend actions like shutting down mass transit and evacuating parts of New York. Not to mention all those ruined weekends in the Hamptons.

Whatever, expect more flight cancellations. And if you're at an airport right now, get out while the gettin's good. Remember, the days of hotel and meal vouchers for those stuck at airports are pretty much over.


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