Tarmac-delay rules and proactive airline weather cancellations


I’m sitting in southern New Hampshire just after a major blizzard. New York, Boston and any airports in the region are closed. My driveway is buried under two feet of snow. Flights are canceled. Who knows how many travelers will be stuck for days getting to here or there?

Some might have us believe that the earlier cancellations of flights these days is caused by the DOT rules regarding tarmac delays. I’ll bet that some future airline study will use this storm data to argue that new DOT regulations are to blame for cancellations.

Not so fast.

The real reasons airlines can cancel flights prior to snowstorms are new technology and new communications tools that allows them to reach their customers like the never could in the days of yore, two years ago.

Once upon a time, the standard operating procedure for airlines was to hope for the best when they heard that a storm was coming. They, justifiably fretted about making a mistake and canceling flights for nothing more than a dusting when meteorologists may have predicted feet of snow or widespread ice. Alternatively, they worried about canceling flights for a simple rainstorm instead of the predicted hurricane.

The results of these decisions (and, honestly, the limitations of technology, but more on that later) were that airports would find themselves filled with distressed passengers. Some airports would deploy cots and blankets that were stored for just such emergencies when nature struck.

Airlines, attempting to do what they thought passengers wanted, loaded planes and lined them up on the runway in the hopes that they could take off during a possible break in the weather. In the meantime, other planes were circling above the airport awaiting permission to land. And then when they landed, often these incoming passengers found no open gates to deplane, meaning more delays and frustrations.

All of these efforts to move passengers from Point A to Point B resulted in the airlines being eviscerated by passenger rights zealots when tarmac delays mounted into the hours.

From the airlines’ point of view, they were facing a situation of, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Or, perhaps they were learning that, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The new world of proactive cancellations
More and more, airlines are proactively canceling flights, sometimes days before departure. One would think that these cancellations would be met by the public with a large degree of irritation. But, that’s not the case.

The flying public are fairly savvy and resourceful. They know that Acts of God like snowstorms and hurricanes can close airports and result in canceled flights. In the past, airlines operated on the basis that passengers would prefer to take a chance on whether or not their flight could get off the ground rather than reschedule. So, in the passengers’ interest, airlines dutifully did their best to fly no matter what the weather.

Not any more. Cancellations are coming sooner than ever when airlines are faced with weather events.

The airlines have learned that passengers are happier when they have time to plan for changes rather than being faced with long waits at airports and on tarmacs. The airlines also realize that they can save a 747-load of money by making decisions earlier and setting up equipment and crews for quicker and better utilization after the storm passes.

Some say that Delta’s experience, a decade ago, when executives made the decision to cancel hundreds of flights in the face of a predicted ice storm in Atlanta was the “ah-hah!” moment for the industry. Ironically, the storm never materialized because temperatures stayed above freezing.

According to stories circulated in storm planning circles, the executives thought they might be fired for making the wrong decision that canceled so many flights. Surprisingly, the response from passengers was understanding. Passengers were pleased to have been kept out of the rigors of poor-weather travel and they appreciated the time they were given to make alternative plans.

It was a revelation!

Passengers like understanding what is happening, even if they don’t relish delays. Passengers hate uncertainty, waiting, feeling like they are totally out of control and feeling that they are being misled and misinformed.

Communications technology comes to the rescue
It took time for technology to catch up with this newly developing passenger/airline paradigm. Only in the last couple of years have the airlines had the ability to contact all their passengers and offer them alternative arrangements. Communicating with all passengers and rebooking them in case of massive cancellations, until recently, has been physically and technically impossible.

The truth be told, technology has had a lot to do with the new ways that airlines can handle weather delays. Automatic telephone software, the ubiquity of cell phones, text messaging and automatic rescheduling software have changed the cancellation world for both passengers and the airlines.

Airlines, with automatic dialing software, can now almost immediately notify passengers via cell phones of changes in schedules and cancellations. Text messages can be blasted to passengers instantly.

Rescheduling software come of age
New rescheduling software combined with automatic notification systems allow the airlines to reschedule flights and let all passengers know what’s happening. These passengers can choose to make alternative arrangements or change the computer-generated rescheduling. However, most passengers don’t make changes.

It’s a new world. The airline executive mindset and the technical ability to communicate with passengers and automatically rebook thousands of travelers within minutes has changed the world for both the airlines and for those of us faced with impending storms.

Today’s storm cancellations are not a result of tarmac-delay rules. They are the result of technology and software that makes notification and rescheduling of hundreds of thousands of customers possible.

Passengers know what is happening. Airlines can make plans for planes and crews plus, millions of dollars are saved, newspapers don’t publish the disaster PR photos of stranded passengers (well maybe a few from those who never seem to get the message) and airplanes aren’t stuck on the tarmac for hours.

  • Robert

    “These passengers can choose to make alternative arrangements or change the computer-generated rescheduling. However, most passengers don’t make changes.”

    There is a downside to computer generated rescheduling. Airllines somethimes take travel agent issued tickets and they exchange them for new tickets automatically that a travel agent cannot change. If business travelers have to modify their itinerary to something other than what the airline has picked out for them, or to refund a ticket, the airlines have taken the travel agent out of the loop. A travel agent or a passenger sometimes has to wait for hours on hold for an airline representative to correct a ticket issued by an airline without approval by the passenger. If an airline can make the automated itinerary change without reissuing the ticket, and wait for a passenger’s OK (perhaps by means of a reply to a text message?) then that could save hours of frustration for passengers, travel agents, and airline representatives.

  • Frank

    The real reasons airlines can cancel flights prior to snowstorms are new technology and new communications tools that allows them to reach their customers like the never could in the days of yore, two years ago.

    Interesting, I worked Xmas for the first time in twenty years and passengers were complaining that they couldnt contact the airline to rebook cancelled flights. Many said they decided to come to the airport and wait in VERY LONGGGGGGGGG LINES to speak to a human being. The phone lines were overwhelmed by thousands calling to rebook. I hopped a ride on Jetblue to travel home today. I watched as “cranky” stand-by’s berated the gate agents with their constant complaining.
    You’re article and it’s explanation comes too soon. I’d like to hear how many tarmac delays happened over the Xmas holiday and how many cancellations the industry had on those days and compare it to one of last year’s blizzards.

  • Frank

    USAToday said, nearly SEVEN THOUSAND flights cancelled during this blizzard.

    Regardless, the air-travel meltdown will deliver a blow to the airlines, too, says analyst Jenkins. AP writes “he said it will be difficult for the airlines to accommodate all the stranded travelers in the New York area quickly enough, and some may abandon their travel plans.”
    Dahlman Rose & Co. analyst Helane Becker estimates the storm-related disruptions will cost carriers a collective $100 million. However, she says she thinks many of the affected fliers will try to rebook. “(I)t’s a holiday and people have to get home,” she’s quoted as saying by AP.

  • Scott

    People will ALWAYS complain. It is still “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

    ESPECIALLY during a holiday period, when flights are already BOOKED, there are no flights for days. Right now, there are no seats into or out of the entire northeast for a week. So Charlie, people are happy if they can plan to move their flight until after their vacations are already over?

  • Peter Mueser

    I am now in my second day still unable to return home following a cancelled flight from New Hampshire to Missouri. Clearly one problem is that more people are booked to fly going west than capacity, given the storm. Yet no one seems to note the odd way in which capacity is rationed. Those booked on cancelled flights must ride on standby, with no priority on any of the subsequent flights that are running. If one thinks about it, the flight numbers are just a matter of labeling, and the airlines could simply designate the “cancelled” flights as delayed (until the storm ended) and then fly us all home. But this would force them to delay other passengers. Their strategy instead is to concentrate the delays on as small a number of passengers as possible. Those who get delayed may be delayed for days (my experience) whereas others’ plans are completely unaffected (those booked on flights after the storm today). Is this really what passengers want? Or does it merely reflect the airlines’ cynical judgment that they’ve already lost the business of the passenger who was delayed by a day, so that an extra day doesn’t matter.

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  • J Greene

    The only solution is for the airlines to charge enough, either through voluntary or regulatory means, to justify keeping a percentage of seats empty on each and every flight. This was the normal situation pre-deregulation when the cost matched the needs of the airlines to make a profit. I would be happy to pay more for the security of knowing that if it were at all possible I would reach my destination at least on the same day I was supposed to arrive.

  • http://www.wineandspiritstravel.com Marcia Frost

    I’m all for proactive cancellations — to some point. I was woken up 20 hours before my flight last week to tell me it was cancelled because it was going to be foggy in Chicago! How the airline could predict that fog was going to roll in at 7:30 pm that night I don’t know. I was stuck in NY an extra day and, as I imagined, all flights were going through Chicago at 7:30 pm except my cancelled one!!!