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Originally published Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 10:47 AM

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Lean airlines struggling to handle storm's passenger backlog

It could take days to reposition planes and crews, and columnist Joe Sharkey says the best thing to do is stay home.

The New York Times

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Air travelers are facing days of frustration as disruptions from the virtual shutdown of the air travel system in the Northeast ripple out nationally and the airlines struggle to put the pieces back together.

Besides the immediate effects of the storm, the airlines have cut so much that they have little ability to handle any extra strain. Fleets have been pared; employees laid off. In a system now flying with more than 80 percent of seats full, there's no slack to handle a crush of desperate passengers looking to reschedule flights knocked off the board by a big storm.

"Right now we're looking at tens of thousands of business travelers whose trips were interrupted, and who are stuck," said Joseph Bates, the vice president for research at the Global Business Travel Association. The Eastern Seaboard is "the busiest area of the United States in terms of business travel, and it's essentially going to be shut down for two days."

Expect large numbers of additional flight cancellations this week among the 27,000 scheduled commercial flights on a typical weekday in the United States. As thousands of scrubbed flights pile up through the week, the likelihood for air travel chaos is high.

Basically, the best advice is this: Stay home this week. If you're already en route and stranded, or if you have a ticket for air travel in the near future, consult airlines for the current storm-travel waiver policies. But good luck trying to phone because airlines long ago thinned staff at their call centers, and the websites were providing scant information about rescheduling.

Generally, the airlines are waiving penalty fees, which are usually $150, for passengers who rebook after canceling a nonrefundable reservation, or having one canceled.

"I'm hearing from business travelers who said they're being rebooked, only to find that the rebooked flight is also canceled," said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the subscription business travel site

"These are ridiculous travel waiver policies that are trying to force you into rebooking through a very narrow window," he said.

Some airlines seemed to project a rather casual attitude about the crisis on their websites, it seemed to me. Even as scheduled flights were being canceled wholesale, the United Airlines advisory, for example, provided a list of what it referred to as "cities that may experience flight delays due to weather conditions."

United's policy on rebooking was typical. The change penalty and any extra charge for higher fares was waived, provided a passenger rebooks and begins the new trip by Nov. 7. On Delta, new travel has to be commenced by Sunday. (Those were the policies as of Monday.)

Once the storm abates, airlines will need to reposition planes and crews. "When the skies turn blue again, that doesn't mean everything's immediately fine. It takes another couple of days to get the crews and the jets to where they belong and bring the system back," said G. Bruce Hedlund, a recently retired American Airlines captain.

There's also more dependence on part-time employees who can be scheduled ad hoc, meaning it's going to be harder to get the system back quickly. "Now the computer says,'I don't need you for eight hours; I need you at the peak,' so it's a part-time job tailoring the schedule for demand, and that adds complications," he said.

As the storm loomed, the Global Business Travel Association offered statistics extrapolated from past disruptions and found that in a major hurricane of one to two days' duration on the East Coast, the total loss in business travel spending would be about $684 million, and 580,000 business trips would be disrupted.

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