Cancel or delay: The JFK blizzard recovery debacle


On Saturday morning three flights left their airports in Europe destined for JFK. They would all arrive early afternoon in New York City, offload a few hundred passengers and then return to Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna with their new passengers and also with crew stranded in NYC the past couple days because of the blizzard. After a couple hours in the air each of the three flights – LH400, LH410 and OS87 – returned home. They cannot complete the trip today because some 48 hours after the snow stopped falling JFK airport is still struggling to recover from the storm.

JFK had dozens of inbound flights divert on Thursday. The vast majority of them chose to complete the trip on Friday, after the crew had sufficient rest. And so, around 5pm, just as the evening rush was gearing up, a whole bunch of extra planes showed up in JFK. The runways were able to handle the aircraft reasonably well. The taxiways, even with a few still out of service, did okay, too. The terminals, however, were a disaster. The problems continued overnight as aircraft waited their turn for a gate. And waited. And waited.

Only a small handful of flights chose to bail, either prior to diverting or after their diversion. Norwegian sent its planes back to Europe empty rather than try to finish the flights to JFK. That helped the airline get its own operations back on track and also helped improve the debacle that is T1 at JFK. That’s hard to believe given that T1 is where those three flights were headed today before turning around because they realized no gates would be available. The Korean Airlines A380 waited roughly 5 hours for a gate at T1 on Friday night. Other aircraft waited many hours to get to other terminals as well.



One of the quirks of JFK’s operations is that each terminal is run by a separate entity. If T1 is full and T7 has space a plane cannot simply pull in for a couple hours and unload there. But unless someone makes an official call saying a terminal is not accepting additional inbound aircraft ATC will continue to let them arrive. And then try to figure out where to park them for hours at a time while they await gates. That’s bad news for everyone, especially as the diverted planes started to arrive on Friday night.

Update: About an hour after I posted this (and 30ish hours too late) the Port Authority finally got its act together and implemented restrictions on inbound flights planning to park at Terminals 1, 4 & 7. That should help clear the backlog out. Just gotta hope no riots break out in the terminals; passengers are getting VERY testy after 3 days in JFK.

/Update

And so the question arises: Is it better to delay and eventually complete the flight or to cancel at the diversion point? And keep in mind that by the time this decision had to be made the airlines knew that the airport would be closed overnight and that it would be crowded on Friday with the regular operations.

Watch: Talking blizzards, diversions and recovery with FlightRadar24

Not all flights could give up so easily, of course. An Emirates A380 in Pittsburg or the many planes that landed at O’Hare need to get their passengers to New York City eventually. But what about the Singapore Airlines A380 that went to Stewart? The carrier rescheduled that return to Frankfurt and Singapore as SQ9025, departing Friday night instead of Thursday. It eventually took flight on Saturday morning at 8:15am, flying the spectacularly rare eastbound daytime flight from NYC to Frankfurt.

Singapore Airlines operated its Thursday night JFK-Frankfurt flight 36 hours late, departing at 8a Saturday morning.
Singapore Airlines operated its Thursday night JFK-Frankfurt flight 36 hours late, departing at 8a Saturday morning.

Was it worth the additional delay and disruption to JFK operations to have the plane come in, fill up with passengers and eventually fly out so many hours late? Would the airline, airport and passengers all have been better suited had SQ cancelled the flight and rebooked travelers on other flights?



Emirates unloaded its A380 at Dulles and transported the passengers by bus to New York City. It also chose to fly the A380 in and load up with the Dubai-bound travelers rather than abort the trip and reset.

Continued record high load factors make such rebookings challenging at best. All the more so when every airline is affected by similar cancellations and needs to get its customers handled before accepting those from other carriers. And even if they could rebook the passengers that is an expensive proposition. So is flying an empty plane halfway around the world.

Still, at some point the flights that cannot reasonably operate have to be canceled. Lufthansa and Austrian did precisely that. No matter what it sucks for many passengers but getting operations back to normal flow as quickly as possible rather than slowly digging out seems like a more efficient solution for the overall system.

 

 

Oh, and adding insult to injury, China Southern and Kuwait Air planes clipped each other last night at JFK. That certainly didn’t help operations.

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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 .

29 Comments

  1. Some terrible operational decisions by intl carriers… This was completely avoidable and the US airlines got it right by cancelling early.

    1. Easy to say, but most of the international flight departed with weather forecast not remotely as bad as forecast (remember a lot of ULR flight depart up to 15-16 hours before the storm hit), so they depart with the expectation that they have weather forecast indicating weather that is good enough to land. As for cancelling other flights and return the plane empty instead of trying to fly the diverted flight into JFK and carrier delayed pax… people need to reali3 that it is much more difficult to restore an ULR operations, flying an empty plane back to an international airline home based is a missed opportunity to try to recover the schedule (even if it means delay on the ground for 5-6 or more hours, as the alternative is to fly another plane in that will takes over 15-16 hours to get there plus the time to get the required crew). Also, cancelling a flight doesn’t mean you don’t have to re-accommodate the passengers one way or the other, to clear the passenger backlog can take weeks. So it is a much easier thing for domestic carrier to deal with this and recover their schedule then for international carrier.

      1. I agree that some of the diversions aren’t necessarily the airlines’ fault. They departed based on JFK’s announced reopen time, something that slipped badly through Thursday afternoon and ultimately into Friday morning. But some planes also took off with ETAs in the peak of the storm activity. Sure, hindsight is 20/20 but expecting to arrive at JFK in the middle of a blizzard is not great planning IMO. And if the overall impact is a few hours delay and then playing catch-up that’s a reasonable thing to do. But at ~4p EST on Thursday when it became clear that the airport was not reopening until 7a the idea of running all the extra sections ON TOP of the regular flights was irresponsible, both by the airlines, the airport and the Port Authority. I’m not suggesting that safety was compromised in the flight operations but having the planes stuck on the taxiways for so long – and landing at JFK knowing that this would be the case – is arguably negligent (in the philosophical sense; I won’t speak to legal issues).

        And I agree that it is ridiculously expensive to simply give up and fly the plane home empty. That doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution. Flights must be canceled to allow the system to reset. In this case the parties involved waited way too long to do that and created a greater problem for the overall operations than if all the diverted flights simply became cancellations instead.

  2. The PANYNJ finally stepped in and is limiting arrivals for T1/4/7 due to long turn times and potential gridlock. This should’ve been in place on Friday morning when the field reopened.

  3. JetBlue was a horror show… they chose to delay and not cancel. Friday departures were being rebooked for Tuesday. They have not learned a thing over the years.

    1. No planes stuck on the tarmac for JetBlue that I’ve read about so far. Definitely some rolling delays both Thursday and Friday but no stranded passengers like the other airlines. So I’d say they learned a few things.

      1. I had family on jfk-aua on Friday. First offered was Tuesday. Check twitter as well, seemed lots of folks stranded at airport

        1. Well, a confirmed flight a few days later after a cancel is normal at this point. For everyone. There isn’t capacity to run extra flights. That’s why the airport is a disaster right now (well, better now that the PANYNJ forced planes to stop arriving to T1/4/7). JetBlue is hardly perfect but they didn’t have planes stuck waiting hours for gates like the others do.

          No one comes out of this mess smelling like roses but JetBlue is far from the worst and hardly what the Valentine’s Day massacre was like.

  4. I flew out of JFK on Friday with Turkish. Our flight was 2 hours delayed in landing at JFK and then we kept getting our destitute pushed back before sitting on the runway for almost 2 hours.
    The mess at JFK expands to other airports as well. Should have seen Istanbul this morning as the result of just that one plane being 4 hours late (lot of people mad that TK chose to just move people to flights 24 hours later instead of accommodating them on partner airlines for same day arrival).

  5. Had to drive back from Pittsburg yesterday because I couldn’t get a flight to Stewart even though the airport never closed. Quite a sight to see the giant A380 that was diverted from JFK next to the tiny terminal!

  6. Was on Asiana flight that got diverted to Chicago. Asiana was great in Chicago. Hotel, food all taken care of with a smile and care. Even had Asiana staff at the hotel to help out with trips to drug stores etc. They drove passengers in their own cars. Took what could have been hell and made is a comfortable experience. Ended up getting to JFK 5pm on Friday. Had to wait 3 hours to get off the plane. But really did not want to since Asiana flight attendants are awesome. Baggage area was a mess with only two carousels for all the flights but Asiana had big team there to help out passengers. Actually they where the only airline with a team at the baggage area.

    1. T1 has been the worst so far (and typically it). Two other inbound JAL flights diverted last night. Fortunately things should start to clear up there today with the block on new inbound flights that lack confirmed gate space.

    2. Seth Miller yeah the big issue is space and crew timing out. As JL3 had both, they should have prioritized its departure. It was further delayed because they didn’t have enough meals or water. Epic fail.

  7. Add to that the T4 closure 13:30-19:00 today due to water pipe break or T4 gate B23 fist fights as SE041 was delayed 57h from JAN05 02:30 to JAN07 11:50. Ouch.

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