Here come the flight cancellations

A few months back the news came out that the Department of Transportation would be issuing significant fines against airline operators when they had flights delayed more than three hours between the runway and the gate. The rule hasn’t actually done into effect yet – there are a couple weeks left until enforcement begins – but several airlines appear to be already running their operations in line with the new rules? The net effect of the change in the airlines’ behavior? Thousands of canceled flights across the country.

This should not come as much of a surprise to the traveling public but apparently it is. It seems that the airlines are choosing to cancel flights much more aggressively now when faced with a severe weather situation and they are doing so without any real obligations to their customers. It is not a good thing at all. But it is apparently what society thought they wanted so it is what we’re now faced with.

It is interesting to hear the spin that airlines are putting on their new policies.  Take the line from Continental President and CEO Jeff Smisek about the company’s Operations Center policies:

During difficult weather our [Operations] team … works to pre-cancel flights in order to minimize inconvenience for our customers.… [The plan] not only allows Continental to minimize disruptions for passengers during irregular operations, it also permits us to return our operations to normal as quickly as possible after a weather event.

And there is no doubt that parts of this is actually true. It does appear that the airlines are able to get back to normal operations generally pretty quickly after a weather event, though it isn’t completely obvious that it is any better than before.  There are, however, some parts that don’t seem to quite live up to the expectations being set. Things like the airlines simply canceling out all of their regional and express operations for a days at a time are not good for customers. When the ability to actually complete travel is frequently delayed two or more days from the weather event it is hard to see how that is minimizing disruptions for passengers. When airlines are unwilling to pay the cost of accommodating their customers on the airlines that are operating the situation becomes even more difficult, especially when the reasons given for the cancelations are less than wholly accurate.

And it isn’t just one or two airlines that take the wholesale cancelation approach.  In the past month there have been a number of weather events in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States and many carriers have taken this approach to handling the situation.  Southwest, Delta, jetBlue, United and US Airways have all done it at one more more airports for one or more days.  That’s hundreds of thousands of passengers displaced because of thousands of flight cancelations.

But it could be worse.  More troublesome than just canceling all the flights and telling everyone to go home is when a carrier cancels all their flights across the board and then starts putting a few back into operation. There are simply too many moving bits to keep track of to keep everyone informed. At Newark last Friday I watched as thousands of passengers, self included, were given the run-around while flights were reinstated, moved to new gates, delayed or canceled again and otherwise left with misinformation.

For my own flight a call from the lounge to the gate indicated that I was the only passenger who had not yet boarded the flight and that they were getting ready to depart without me. A quick sprint to the gate showed a much different reality. They were still trying to find a full crew to get on the plane and get us out of there. I’m not sure if the agent in the lounge just didn’t want to deal with me anymore, if the woman at the gate was less than truthful or if no one knew what was going on at all. But it truly sucked from a passenger perspective.

And I was one of the lucky ones.  I actually made it on to my flight with only a 5.5 hour delay and with an upgrade. Two other friends in the airport had no reasonable choice other than to cancel their travel plans completely. Ditto for two other guys supposed to make the trip out to Las Vegas for the weekend with us. So what is good for the customer about these new policies?

There are plenty of problems in the airline industry today but this new approach doesn’t solve many of them, other than to avoid DoT fines. Thanks for looking out for the consumers there.  Y’all screwed up on this one pretty good.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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