The modern aviation system is a marvel of technology and human enterprise. The idea that one can get into an aluminum cylinder powered by controlled explosions and soar through the skies, landing a few hours later in foreign lands, based on aerodynamic principles, still boggles the mind. To think that it can cost only a few hundred dollars and millions of people do it every day, is even more amazing.
Yet, following the Christmas 2010 weekend storm in the Northeast, the media was out doing what they do, trying to find someone to blame. The fact that this was a massive storm and the fact that airlines seem to handle this well, did not seem to matter. Due to the tarmac delay rules, introduced in April 2010, no passenger on any US airline was forced to wait on the runways – the few cases where this occurred all involved foreign carriers.
The tarmac delay rule specified massive fine ($27,500 per passenger delayed) for tarmac delays over three hours. And it worked. Instead of risking such fines, which can easily amount to millions of dollars per airplane, US airlines simply canceled flights even before the storm hit. More than 5,000 flights were canceled just in the New York area by airlines operating in LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark airports. Thousands more flights were canceled throughout the country. Naturally, some of the cancelations were due to operational considerations – deciding where it would be best to have planes and crews during the storm - but the fact that the only airplanes involved in long tarmac delays were foreign, speaks for itself. US carriers do not have different operational considerations from British Air, Air France, or Cathay Pacific, yet those carriers decided to fly when US carriers decide to cancel flights preemptively. This does not mean that the tarmac delay policy is beneficial. It only means that it works; US airlines are rational decision makers and in the face of potential massive fines, decided not to take the risk.
The two interesting open questions are 1) does the tarmac delay rule make sense? And 2) given that it is in effect, how can airlines ease the customer burdens?
Interestingly, airlines can be exempt from the fine when letting the passengers deplane would not be safe or, in the opinion of the tower, would disrupt airport operation. Of course, it is likely that it is exactly during snow emergencies that such rules may be waved, but this means that airlines will have to take the risk and rely on the airport or the Department of Transportation ex post considerations. Instead, they decided to cancel thousands of flights.
Given that the rule is in effect, however, airlines can do a lot to ease the distress of their customers. Some ideas include the following:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. As a flight is canceled, the airlines should use all contacts in their disposal to notify every booked passenger on the decision. These include email, text messaging, tweets, and automatic phone calls.
- The notification should include a rebooking message. Delta already does this for its medallion members of its frequent flight program, giving them the alternative flight and a phone number to call for changes. Such default re-booking should be automatic.
- Airlines should ensure enough phone support. A massive flight cancelation program should be accompanied by having all customer service representatives report for service, even during a holiday period. Jet Blue is particularly capable of doing this since its customer reservations agents are working from home and thus more can be activated in an emergency.
- Airline information systems should be sized for handling a massive cancelation event and be able to handle the extra load.
- To the extent possible airports should increase their use of cots, blankets and food supplies to ease the chaos of waiting passengers in the airport facilities. Several airports around the country already have such stocks to be used in emergencies.
Since storms such as the one on the Christmas weekend are not a surprise – airlines, airports and the general public knew about them days in advance – it should be relatively easy to gear up for handling the problems associated with cancelations. Early communications will ease the burden on the airports by making travelers stay home rather than getting to the airport and finding out that their flight has been canceled. Airports can also institute a rule during emergencies that requires airlines to give gate access to other airlines, thus allowing for safe deplaning of passengers.
Finally, one should think about the responsibility of the customers. They too should not have been surprised by the storm. Most airlines, when called ahead, will put a passenger on an earlier flight – they too are trying to minimize the number of delayed people they have to deal with. In addition, when flying into a storm, make sure that children have food and water – just in case; and adults have their medications for a few days. Finally, the flying public should realize that flights are still subject to weather delays. Flights will be delayed, diverted and passengers inconvenienced. This is simply part of flying.