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.”