The first week of 2014 has been a doozy for US airlines, and not in a good way. Severe weather has hit the upper Midwest and Northeastern parts of the country in waves, bringing cold, wind, rain, snow and ice to airports and causing significant disruptions of operations. The next couple days are predicted to be even colder, with temperatures so low that many flights are being canceled days in advance because the airlines know the won’t operate. Oh, and some new rules from the FAA kicked in over the weekend which are further affecting things.
The FAA rules are interesting in that they set hard limits on pilot duty hours where previously there was some flexibility at the discretion of the pilot. In most scenarios that doesn’t matter as the airline crew scheduling teams can account for these rules when building lines. But when IRROPs happen things can get messy. Historically pilots could take a diversion and then finish the continuation flight once the target airport was able to receive them, even if it meant stretching their duty day past the normal limits. The new rule prohibits that meaning that diversions late in the duty day might result in the plane, passengers and crew being stuck out of position for 10+ hours. Oops.
Extreme cold also has some serious effects on the ability of the airlines to operate. It turns out that planes have their limits, as do the other elements which help them fly. Last summer some US Airways Express flights were canceled in Phoenix because temperatures exceeded 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the limit at which the planes could safely operate. The cold weather this week is bringing a similar effect, with airlines concerned about the liquids in the planes’ control systems freezing up in some cases. Also, the effectiveness of the de-icing fluids is limited in extreme cold such that flights which could otherwise operate might be canceled.
For JetBlue the extreme cold means canceling their entire schedule in and out of JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and Boston between 5pm Monday and 10am Tuesday. Some flights prior to 5pm will also be affected by the cuts. United has cut hundreds of flights from their schedule, virtually grounding their regional plane operations in Chicago, Cleveland and Newark. And let us not forget that many passengers were depending on flights to operate early this week to help make up for the cancelations late last week; things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better for travelers looking to be accommodated from previously canceled flights.
Oh, and don’t forget that Delta Connection CRJ which slid off the taxi-way at JFK on Sunday morning, closing the field for a couple hours. That definitely didn’t help anything out with the recovery.
The airlines are loving the fact that they make more money flying planes which are more full than ever. High load factors mean high profits when everything is running smoothly. They also mean more crowds, more stress on passengers and, when there is any hiccup along the way, the system gets very close to collapsing on itself. Hopefully one or two of these “resets” by the airlines will work out to get things back on track. But it is definitely going to be a few days before schedules look anything remotely close to normal again.
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