Passengers caught in perfect storm of airline inflexibility
The East Coast blizzard shows the U.S. air-travel system is far less resilient than it used to be, with airlines imposing pre-emptive cancellations and now struggling to get back on schedule with thousands of passengers stranded.
New York Times
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Always look on the bright side of life, suggested G. Bruce Hedlund, who has been a pilot for a major domestic airline for over a quarter century. Actually, being an airline captain, Hedlund is of a breed that seldom looks on the bright side of anything, but at least he is trying, given the current travel havoc on the East Coast caused by the blizzard.
Once upon a time, he said, pilots and airlines would try to bull their way through weather disruptions like the East Coast snowstorm that shut down the New York area airports. But last spring, a new federal law imposed heavy fines on airlines for keeping airplanes full of passengers on tarmacs.
"Now they're often not even trying to take off. They're just going straight to wholesale cancellations," said Hedlund who, like all major airline pilots, cannot mention his airline by name in interviews.
The federal rule that went into effect last April fines airlines up to $27,500 for every passenger kept on planes idled on tarmacs for more than three hours.
As the blizzard effects started rippling through the air travel system during the weekend, Hedlund had the luxury of watching the mess from his home near San Francisco. He is not scheduled to get into the cockpit again until Tuesday for a flight to Orlando, Fla. He does not head into New York until Wednesday.
More than 4,000 flight cancellations piled up over the weekend and through Monday. Most of those were in New York, but even in Atlanta, which was largely unscathed by the blizzard, about 1,000 departures and arrivals were canceled Saturday as a precaution.
"It's now a different kind of inconvenience than sitting on the airplane and hoping it will take off," he said. "But I guess you do have a higher degree of certainty, at least short term, because in the old days you tried to take off, even if it meant sitting four or five hours on the airplane and getting de-iced three times, and running out of gas once, before you finally had to give up anyway," Hedlund said. "Now we'll just tell you, forget it, come back in a couple of days."
But considering that the air travel system has shrunk to the point where most domestic flights are now full most of the time, this can be a suggestion mired in futility. That is especially true now, with the last surge of year-end holiday travel piling into the oversubscribed system.
"So now the problem, because capacity has been reduced over the last several years and flights are generally full, is that all those canceled passengers will be standing by for flights later this week — and those flights are already full," Hedlund said.
No slack in air-travel system
As a new year beckons in air travel, we can expect more of the same when bad weather barges into a system that has no slack. The blizzard was big enough to shut down the New York City area airports under any circumstances. But as evidenced by the pre-emptive cancellations in places like Atlanta as well as the difficulty airlines are having getting back onto schedule, the domestic air travel system is far less resilient than it used to be.
Next year, can the airlines come up with a better way to handle these inevitable weather disruptions? Why, for example, are tens of thousands of would-be passengers still stuck in confusion as a result of this snowstorm? Why can't airlines become more agile?
"My girlfriend thinks they were just shutting down their customer service so they didn't have to deal with anybody," said Tom Groenfeldt, who publishes a blog on financial technology, www.techandfinance.com.
Groenfeldt and his girlfriend had tickets to fly from Green Bay, Wis., to Philadelphia on Sunday, but the flight was canceled. They have not been able to make alternate arrangements. Airline websites are confoundingly limited in such cases, he said, adding: "So we're just frozen in place."
He wonders why during times like these, airlines, which are now profitable, cannot simply rent additional computing power and hire temporary customer-service workers.
Hedlund recommends patience through adversity — which, come to think of it, could be the new slogan for coping with air travel in the new year.
"The veteran travelers are all familiar with the deal now, and so they know not to shoot the messenger, which is the airline employee on the line," he said, as he approaches 2011, his final year as an airline pilot before retirement.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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