Airlines cancel flights to avoid bigger problems

Even before the first snowflake fell in metro Atlanta Thursday, Delta Air Lines had canceled nearly 200 flights, while AirTran Airways had canceled nearly 20 flights from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Such cancellations can perplex and frustrate travelers who wonder why their flights are grounded due to a storm that hasn’t yet happened and may not amount to much. Airlines say it’s all aimed at keeping the effects of the storm from snowballing into a far bigger problem.

What some airlines call “proactive cancellations” give them more control over their operations and prevent some passengers from getting severely delayed or stranded mid-trip.

If flights aren’t canceled ahead of time and the storm pans out, airlines wind up canceling “literally because you cannot operate,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. “Instead of trying to stick, say, ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack, we’re going to go ahead and try to adjust for that.”

But it’s a balancing act that brings cold comfort to passengers whose flights are advance-cancelled, leaving them late for business meetings, vacation bookings or homecomings.

Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran Airways, which is based in Orlando and has its largest hub in Atlanta, said AirTran tries to make decisions as quickly as possible, in part to keep customers from coming to the airport if their flight is canceled.

“We know they’re much more comfortable in their homes than sitting in the [airport] atrium,” White said. And, “we don’t want thousands of people in the airport that you have to take care of in a snowstorm.” Canceling flights can also keep passengers from getting stuck at a connecting airport, Black added.

Delta is aggressive in contacting customers so they can rebook, Black said. Delta and AirTran both announced earlier in the week that they would waive certain change fees for passengers whose flights could be affected. Delta is working on technology from merger partner Northwest to allow customers to go online to rebook themselves.

Northwest, which was based in Eagan, Minn., before the two combined, also is contributing to Delta’s expertise in handling winter weather, Black said. “We take a lot of the training from the folks at Northwest who deal with de-icing,” he said.

That will add to Delta’s own hard-won lessons. Back in 2002, Delta’s operations were badly snarled by a snowstorm after the airline pushed forward with its regular schedule to try to get planes out in advance. The storm arrived early and thousands of passengers were stranded inside Hartsfield-Jackson or on planes for hours.

Canceling in advance can make it easier to reschedule passengers, said Douglas Fearing, a Ph.D candidate in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has done research on airline passenger delays.

If a flight is canceled at the last minute, “then you have passengers lining up ... waiting to be rescheduled one by one,” Fearing said. The process can be handled more strategically when flights are canceled in advance.

During a severe storm, the number of flights airlines can operate per hour decreases significantly, particularly when planes have to be de-iced before takeoff. Most AirTran planes fly five or six flights a day, White said. That adds complexity to the decision.

“What we’re trying to do is really affect the least number of people possible,” White said. “Rather than delaying thousands of people for several hours each, we make a decision taking into consideration where else that plane is flying to and how many people will be affected in totality.”

“It really becomes a scramble to get the airplanes, the pilots, the flight attendants and the passengers all at the right place at the right time,” White said. “On a normal day, running an airline is a really smooth ballet in the sky. On a bad day, it’s kind of like break-dancing.”

Delta is less likely to cancel flights on routes with fewer flight frequencies because it’s more difficult to accommodate passengers, Black said.

Also part of the decision-making is positioning crews and planes for quick recovery once the storm passes, and avoiding having to reposition planes the next day, Black said.

Airlines are eager to avoid disasters like JetBlue’s operational meltdown at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Valentine’s Day in 2007

“You have to balance the passengers’ desire of getting where they want to be with their comfort,” White said.