If past experience with severe weather is anything to go by, one could be forgiven for expecting that the 16,000 flight cancellations caused by Hurricane Sandy would have caused chaos at airports.With US airlines rewriting the playbook on how to deal with severe weather, however, the nightmare of families sleeping on floors amidst mounds of luggages or passengers stuck for hours on planes hoping to take off has been largely avoided.
In the aftermath of Sandy, airports from Washington to Boston are deserted. There are hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded across the US and around the world, but instead of camping out inside airport terminals they are staying with friends and family or in hotels.
After years of storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, US airlines have learned that it’s best 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.
“The last few major storms created such gridlock, and such bad will with their best customers, they just had to shift their behaviour,” said Kate Hanni, who heads up the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights and lobbied for the three-hour rule. “The flying public would rather have their flights pre-cancelled than be sleeping in Chicago on a cot.”
Airlines spent days before Sandy hit running though colour-coded checklists to shut down their Northeast operations. Computers were covered in plastic tarps. Hotel rooms near airports were booked for gate agents and ramp workers. Planes, pilots and flight attendants were moved to other airports and shelter was found for animals travelling as cargo.
By Friday, airlines started to waive fees for passengers who wanted to move to earlier or later flights.
That sounds easier than it is. Every plane in its fleet is in near constant motion. In one day, a single plane might fly from Atlanta to New York to Detroit – and then back to Atlanta and then once more to New York.
If the airline doesn’t want that plane to spend the night in New York, it has ripple effects throughout the system. For instance, that plane might have been scheduled the next day to fly passengers to Seattle and then on to San Francisco.
When Sandy hit, almost no planes were left in the Northeast.
JetBlue scattered the majority of its planes to 20 different airports across the country, even though 80 per cent of its flights start or end in New York or Boston.
American Airlines moved 80 planes that were supposed to spend Sunday night in the Northeast to other airports.
Delta got all of its planes out of New York. US Airways held all but one of its Transatlantic planes bound for Philadelphia at European airports. And United Airlines removed all but about a dozen planes from its Washington Dulles and Newark, New Jersey, hubs.
Once the clouds clear, flights won’t start up immediately, with officials equating starting up the airline again to be like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s not about staffing levels, but an overall game plan that makes sense.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces that people don’t see,” a Delta spokesman said. “It’s a dance to get it all to work.”
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