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It stopped snowing two days ago, so why are flights still getting cancelled?

January 25, 2016

It’s been a solid two days since it stopped snowing in the Mid-Atlantic, but flight cancellations keep climbing after Winter Storm Jonas. So far today, FlightStats.com has recorded 1,792 cancellations in North America alone, mostly in airports around the greater New York and Washington, D.C. areas. If you’re wondering why a return to normal weather hasn’t translated to normal flight schedules, you’re not alone.

“The biggest hurdle right now is all about snow removal,” Jonathan Guerin, a spokesperson for United, told T+L. (The airline had two of its hubs, Newark and Washington Dulles, compromised by the storm and cancelled 278 flights so far today.) “There simply aren’t enough places to put all the snow—and our top priority is moving snow off the taxiways, runways, and gate areas to places where we can safely maneuver around it,” explained Guerin. That requires a ton of equipment—more than most airports’ snow plows can handle—and manpower, as well as available space. And in urban hubs like New York’s LaGuardia, space is a real issue: based on photos, it looks like snow piles are moving from gate to gate, in order to accommodate the specific aircrafts coming in at a particular time of day. Until it melts, says Guerin, “there is no way to get rid of it right now.”

According to Carlo Palazzese, VP of Marketing at FlightStats, there’s also the question of a domino effect. “What the weather has done is left all of its collateral behind, and now the airlines are trying to play catch-up.” What that means: the weather might now be perfect for flying, but the planes are in all the wrong places. “Planes that couldn’t get into the mid-Atlantic were all deployed to other flight routes; now airlines need to figure out how to get them back to where they need to be,” he explained.

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Michelle Mohr, a spokeperson for American Airlines, agrees. “We had completely ceased operations in Charlotte, our second-largest hub, and moved all of those aircraft to other airports where they wouldn’t be iced in,” she told T+L, detailing the company’s typical storm practice.

Solving the problem isn’t as simple as just flying planes to where they belong. “Even if you wanted to double or triple up on getting people back to New York or D.C., you can still only get one plane to a gate at a time,” said FlightStats’ Palazzese. So there’s the issue of gate availability. “And that’s to make no mention of how many hours the crew and pilots can work, or how long you can sit on a tarmac,” he says. Mohr adds: “Many of our crews are displaced, and without public transit and roadways being back to their regular operating commissions, it’s an issue to get staff—not just our employees but FAA, TSA, and other airport employees—back to the airport.” Stack up the obstacles and it starts to feel almost like a lost cause.

But there’s a reason to stay optimistic. American Airlines is working as quickly as possible to get back to 100 percent operation, even if they don’t yet know when they’ll be back up to speed. “We’ve made great progress thinning out the number of passengers who still need to be rebooked,” says Mohr, “partially by getting ahead of the problem and offering our customers the ability to change their travel plans and waiving their change fees.”

United, similarly, offered concessions to stranded passengers via its app and website; it expects to begin prioritizing hub-to-hub flights tonight and powering United Express flights by Wednesday morning. “Airlines get beat up over these cancellations,” said FlightStats’ Palazzese, “But really, they do an amazing job. It’s a massive, massive project to coordinate. And in the course of 72 hours or so, we’ll have gotten back to the status quo of delays as we know them.” 

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