A pretty cruddy week for air travel


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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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, LinkedIn and .

8 Comments

  1. I was supposed to fly to New Orleans from New York on Friday and had my flight canceled three times. United said they would give refunds so hopefully that works out….

  2. I’m going to dispute on little factoid in this post. “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.” This happens every few years in Phoenix, and actually, the planes CAN operate in the heat. Since the air is much thinner as the temp goes up, all of the flap / aileron settings need to be modified prior to take-off. My understanding is that at 118 degrees, the USAir charts just don’t go that high, or they are unwilling to offload enough weight to make the take-off work. So, they cancel.

    My further understanding is that temps like this commonly occur in the Middle East, so logic dictates that they do something to take off safely (I hope).

    1. Different planes have different accommodations for the heat, Mark. In the 90s America West had to cancel a bunch of flights because the charts didn’t go hot enough. They fixed that and the mainline flights were able to continue operating even in the extreme heat.

      And I suppose that technically the plane would eventually get off the ground with the right settings on the flaps but if you cannot carry any cargo or passengers then does it really count?? Sort of like a tree falling in the forest, I suppose. 🙂

      Also, not a lot of turbo prop operations in the Middle East. Plus, schedules are built to avoid highly loaded aircraft during the peak afternoon hours. Try flying long-haul out of DOH, DXB or even CAI between 12pm and 4pm. Not a lot of options there.

  3. Regarding the new FAA rules:
    The new duty period limitation (FDP) as you mentioned is not as hard a limit as you imply.

    (a) For augmented and unaugmented operations, if unforeseen operational circumstances arise prior to takeoff:
    (1) The pilot in command and the certificate holder may extend the maximum flight duty period permitted in Tables B or C of this part up to 2 hours. …

    However there are quite a bit more to this in the actual rules so that operators are not constantly using this.

    You can find the interesting part here: http://far117understanding.wordpress.com/far-117-flight-and-duty-time-limitations-and-rest-requirements-flightcrew-members/
    under section: 117.19 Flight duty period extensions.

    Given the right circumstances, you could actually fly more than before.

    1. There is, indeed, a LOT more to it than what you described here. Selectively quoting it doesn’t really help the discussion. Exceeding the duty day means also filing a plan of corrective action with the FAA. Among other things, going over the limits means a 30 HOUR break in the past 168 hours for the pilot (and I’m not entirely clear if the clock gets reset with the overage). It also can not be altered if it means exceeding the weekly or monthly limits, though most pilots should not have been too close to those numbers earlier this month.

      The FAR isn’t a major factor in the troubles this weekend but it is a contributing factor.

      1. “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.” Implies that there is no flexibility now; which there is. I just quoted the important part to show that there is flexibility and even put a link to the full text.

        If you only go over the limit by 30 mins or less none of the hassles you mention apply (extra rest or reporting). This is also the most common case today.

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