Here’s Why We’ve Had the Worst Winter for Air Travel On Record

Time has an important piece dealing with why this winter’s flight cancellations have set an all-time record. Weather has been bad, but it draws out several issues causing flights to be delayed and cancelled more than ever before.

There is a combination of weather, government regulation, and the article pins blame on airline consolidation as well.

No doubt new pilot rest rules contribute to the issue. These were lobbied for by pilots unions, and have created a shortage of pilots at regional airlines — which protects pilots from competition and drives up their bargaining power and ultimately their wages — in the same of safety. Like them or hate them, the rules are causing a pinch.

And tarmac delay rules lead to longer delays (going back to the gate to open the aircraft door rather than sitting on the runway) and cancellations, though some passengers prefer the situation.

The piece also blames mergers.

Serial mergers have left Americans with just three legacy carriers, which means redundant or unprofitable flights are scrapped and planes are more crowded. Tight schedules and turnarounds mean a thunderstorm blowing through Newark, N.J., can radiate cancellations across the country, leaving customers stranded when other planes are too full to accommodate them.

But the tarmac delay rule isn’t new. And neither are airline mergers, United/Continental combined operations two years ago and Delta/Northwest was further in the past. Meanwhile American and US Airways and Southwest and Airtran are not yet combined into single carriers.

As many reasons as there are for passengers to dislike airline mergers, mergers don’t mean more weather cancellations. In fact, they mean more flights to get potentially re-accommodated on. Airlines don’t have to put you on another airline when your flight is cancelled due to weather, and they generally do not. A merged (larger) airline means a bigger network and more possible options.

Flights are generally full, though, because the economy is better and travel up compared to 2002-2004 and 2008-2010.

Its true that airlines have eliminated unprofitable hubs (United just announced a major pullback in Cleveland). Running unprofitable flights that are empty through cities possibly not experiencing bad weather was a way that some passengers got re-accommodated, but that’s not really something that government anti-trust policy could have enforced continuation of.

But how full flights are only matters in isolated incidents. During a major weather event, when a majority of flights are cancelled, having more open seats on remaining flights is irrelevant because those are quickly overwhelmed by cancelled passengers needing new flights.

One problem, that I identified in a blog post last week, is airline automatic rebooking systems. Those work great during isolated events (weather in one city, flights go mechanical). But when airlines cancel the bulk of their flights, they roll passengers forward to whatever is available – even days later – flights that they cannot possibly and will not take. What that does is tie up available inventory, other passengers can’t get onto those flights. Eventually when passengers call in to change or cancel their plans, the seats open up. But in the meantime no one can take the seats and the flights look booked solid.

There’s an IT problem that many airlines face, given the architecture they’re using that’s in many cases built on systems dating to the ‘60s. They need systems that will allow customers to rebook themselves online during these sorts of events, and current technology usually fails at that.

Many things are wrong in the airline industry, and with airline operations. Unquestionably the perfect storm of new pilot regulations, relatively recent tarmac delay rules, bad weather, and where that weather has occurred — along with luck — has combined to make this the worst winter for flight cancellations since statistics of the sort have been tracked.

But it’s easy to take a kitchen sink approach, note everything you don’t like about the industry, and cast blame in that direction. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But that doesn’t mean the “things you don’t like” in and of themselves have “causal relationships.”


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. “Flights are generally full, though, because the economy is better and travel up compared to 2002-2004 and 2008-2010.”

    Not sure about the economy being better, but looking at BTS stats it appears the number of seats is way down from, say, 2010. Fewer flights, smaller planes?

  2. It’s an embarrassment that in 2014 we still have to call to rebook — facing interminable hold times — during weather cancellations. Are airlines investing anything in IT to improve this situation?

  3. “But how full flights are only matters in isolated incidents. During a major weather event, when a majority of flights are cancelled, having more open seats on remaining flights is irrelevant because those are quickly overwhelmed by cancelled passengers needing new flights.”

    Cannot agree with your logic here. Fuller flights are a *source* of the problem during weather cancellations, not merely an impediment to their remediation. Your very next paragraph observes that the rebooking system is very inefficient. Fuller flights cancelled = more rebooking = more inefficienies. This is more than just fuller flights = less rebooking absorption.

    Now, I agree with you that it’s not clear that consolidation has been a significant driver of fuller flights. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss consolidation because “past mergers didn’t result in the historic cancellation numbers like we have now, so current mergers aren’t contributing either.” Rather, we’ve never seen this *degree* of consolidation in the US market. And I think the historic lowest raw number of independent carriers must be having some positive affect on fullness, if anything because the degree of coordination among offers is way up.

  4. All because of mergers and regulations.

    We know it can’t be primarily because of the actual weather, since Global Warming is bringing us, as the NY Times told us just last week: “The End of Snow”. 😉

    Nor does anyone at Time want to be smeared as a AGW “denier”. Best to concentrate on those darn corporate mergers. ‘Look, shiny object’….

    Speaking of Inconvenient Truths:
    ………………..
    Snow Totals Piling Up Fast; 130 Year Old Record Falls

    And with the snowfall in the city of Philadelphia Thursday, a 130-year-old record was shattered. For the first time in the city’s history, there have been four 6+ inch snowfalls or more in season. In addition, we are now in the top 5 snowiest winters of all-time.
    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    Need I mention, those records have already been broken and we are only in the middle of February.

  5. Joe Brancatelli recently made a very convincing case as to how the extreme reduction in hubs from even 5 years ago has been a major culprit. Fewer hubs equals fewer possibilities for routing around bad weather. Of course, hub reduction and the creation of a domestic airline oligopoly has been a major result of the merger craze that swept the industry. And by the way, Gary, many of the hubs that were eliminated were NOT unprofitable.

  6. That’s easy, Gary: in order to support the narrative that mergers create greater efficiency and lower costs, which leads to HIGHER profits. And the mergers have led to higher profits, but not because they have created greater efficiency, but because they have eliminated competition!

  7. “As many reasons as there are for passengers to dislike airline mergers, mergers don’t mean more weather cancellations. In fact, they mean more flights to get potentially re-accommodated on. Airlines don’t have to put you on another airline when your flight is cancelled due to weather, and they generally do not. A merged (larger) airline means a bigger network and more possible options.”

    Think you are dead wrong on this, Gary. Larger networks, sure, but, more significantly, *less redundant* and *more centralized* networks. Redundancy and decentralization are what allow networks to handle stressors. Increased network optimization through mergers has led to more fragile networks, meaning the amount of stress needed to cause the network to fail is getting smaller. And worse, in a complex system (eg airline route networks) this effect is nonlinear; WX at two airports grounds/delays vastly more than double the number flights grounded/delayed by WX at only one airport.

    Fragility is the real cost of airline mergers. Most people were worried about ticket prices, but airlines are smarter than that: consumers can easily see ticket prices. Fragility, on the other hand, is much more opaque, and consumers are the ones that bear the brunt of its cost through collective hours spent not getting to their destinations.

  8. @Chas has got it right, and another thing that you are dead wrong about, Gary, is the impact of the new pilot rest rules. Those rules are not behind the shortage of pilots at regional airlines, as you assert. Those shortages have been building for the last few years, long before the new pilot rest rules were implemented. Those pilot shortages are largely the result of the very very low wages that the regionals are paying new pilots! I know you read the NYT–did you miss the recent article detailing that situation?

  9. Folks who like redundant networks across various airlines with different connecting points forget that they won’t be re-routed onto those other carriers. How many hubs does United have? They’re dismantling Cleveland. But they have LAX/SFO/DEN/IAH/EWR/IAD/ORD. That’s more connecting points than CO had before and it’s more connecting points than UA had before, meaning more options for a traveler with a United ticket to re-route.

    Lots of reasons that there aren’t that many pilots, but the question was *why now*? In the litany of things that contribute to regional airline problems finding pilots, the question is *what is different this year?* And that’s the new rules that cause the thin pilot ranks to matter.

  10. @Gary

    Talking about redundancy within a given airline’s network, not across. Centralization, though, is an issue to some extent across networks (eg where hubs overlap, such as in ORD), as delays in one network can cascade into others.

    Broader point is simply that airlines have incentive to hide risk by hyperoptimization, since this risk is borne by the consumer, not the airline.

  11. “But the tarmac delay rule isn’t new. And neither are airline mergers”

    And neither is snow. And neither are thunderstorms. The fact is the airlines choose not to have an effective plan* for these events, no doubt in large part because they can push all the pain to travelers, and to a (slightly) lesser extent to crews and agents. That a Common Carrier oligopoly is allowed to operate this way just shows how much political influence they wield, and how far we’ve fallen.

    * Obviously the airlines have a plan, and it is effective. It’s just traveler hostile.

  12. @Gary “Folks who like redundant networks across various airlines with different connecting points forget that they won’t be re-routed onto those other carriers. How many hubs does United have? They’re dismantling Cleveland. But they have LAX/SFO/DEN/IAH/EWR/IAD/ORD. That’s more connecting points than CO had before and it’s more connecting points than UA had before, meaning more options for a traveler with a United ticket to re-route.”

    It’s more options for the traveler stuck in weather. But centralization drags in a whole segment of travelers that wouldn’t have otherwise been caught in the mess. If weather hits ORD, those travelers in EWR/IAH are collateral damage in a way that they wouldn’t have been pre-merger. Greater centralization destroys the ability for the broader travel network to isolate the effects of weather.

  13. The airlines IT departments may not be on top of online re-booking due to weather, but they sure have learned how to optimize revenue in cases of storms like last week. 1 way Fares from the NE to FL this past Thurs and Friday to several destinations (and yes – there were seats for sale)were double and triple the normal 1 way fares (e.g., @ $1200 DCA-MIA – coach non-refundable). Not just one carrier – all of ’em – including the low cost airlines.

  14. There are many factors that contribute. I think cold weather based hubs like ORD and dense eastern busy airports cause a domino effect across the country.
    The article this week in the WSJ talks about heated runways. I think if a smaller regional airport (ex hub, etc.) would put in heated runways they might be able to gain some business but the problem is they need sister destination airports to match up with this.
    Also tight schedules and connecting flights screw up the system. Once you get too many reschedules because of missed flights the system collapses under its own weight.

  15. We have been flying round trip from LAX to HNL every month for the for the past 7 years, starting with Northwest, then Continental and now on United. First flight out of LAX and red eye from HNL. We have noticed fewer flights and overbooked flights. Every flight we are on for the past year is full. Chances of an upgrade are very slim, we are Platinum and it’s getting very discouraging for us to fly United. We are not able to use our accumulated miles for any award flights to French Polynesia because United does not fly there and they have no partners except Air New Zealand who never has open flights for United awards. We are thinking about switching to Hawaiian because United computer system is outdated and several customers with silver and gold status got upgraded before us. We have been Chase Presidential Plus cardholders for years with high annual spending we do not see benefits from being loyal to United at all. Before the merger we never even considered flying United. Any suggestions? Mahalo.

  16. ““But the tarmac delay rule isn’t new….And neither is snow”.

    True, snow if not new. But this is: “we are now in the top 5 snowiest winters of all-time”.

    And my guess is that “all-time” includes years before air travel was common, or even existed at all. So no surprise that record levels of snow cause record cancellations.

    MommyPoints was on one of the few flights out of Houston a few weeks back. Most flights were cancelled because ice there is so rare that the Houston airport only has one de-icing unit, which requires 30 minutes per plane. Which means a total of 2 flights per hour.

    Pilot rest rules, mergers and hubs had nothing to do with it. Record cold, ice, and snow are the main reason, but everyone would rather pick their favorite talking points than discuss the recent Global Cooling.

  17. Gary, your assertion that airlines won’t move you to another airline due to wx is also wrong. Sure it may not be policy and it may not apply to everyone, but I’ve been moved due to wx and I’m sure you have too. And in irrops every seat freed by moving you and I helps somebody else.

    There are a lot of factors in play. Mergers are one of them. Last night, Newark was totally overwhelmed. Virtually every flight was 1.5 to 2.5 hours late. And it was just raining. Prior to this merger, I would never have been there.

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