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.