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Airlines will take time to recover from storm

world Updated: Oct 31, 2012 00:06 IST
Joe Sharkey

Air travelers are facing days of frustration as disruptions from the virtual shutdown of the air travel system in the US East Coast, ripple out nationally and across the world, airlines struggle to put the pieces back together.

Airlines have cut so much that they have little ability to handle any extra strain. Fleets have been pared; employees laid off. In a system now flying with more than 80% of seats full, there’s no slack to handle a crush of desperate passengers looking to reschedule flights knocked off the board by a big storm.

“Right now we’re looking at tens of thousands of business travelers whose trips were interrupted, and who are stuck,” said Joseph Bates, Global Business Travel Association. The Eastern Seaboard is “The busiest area of the United States in terms of business travel, and it’s essentially going to be shut down for two days.”

Expect large numbers of additional flight cancellations this week. The 7,300-plus cancellations counted on Monday afternoon by the flight tracking service represented about a quarter of the 27,000 scheduled commercial flights on a typical weekday in the US. As thousands of scrubbed flights pile up through the week, the likelihood for air travel chaos is high.

The best advice: Stay at home this week. If you’re already en route and stranded, or if you have a ticket for air travel in the near future, consult airlines. But good luck with that, because airlines long ago thinned staff at their call centres, and the websites were providing scant information on Monday, at least.

“I’m hearing from business travelers that they’re being rebooked, only to find that the rebooked flight is also cancelled,” said Joe Brancatelli of business travel site “These are ridiculous travel waiver policies that are trying to force you into rebooking through a very narrow window,” he said.

United’s policy on rebooking was typical. The change penalty and any extra charge for higher fares is waived, provided a passenger rebooks and begins the new trip by November 7. On Delta, new travel has to be commenced by Sunday.

Once the storm abates, airlines will need to reposition planes and crews. “When the skies turn blue again, that doesn’t mean everything is immediately fine. It takes another couple of days to get the crews and the jets to where they belong and bring the system back,” Bruce Hedlund, a former American Airlines captain said.

There’s also more dependence on part-time employees who can be scheduled ad hoc, meaning it’s going to be harder to get the system back quickly. “Now the computer says, ‘I don’t need you for eight hours; I need you at the peak, so it’s a part-time job tailoring the schedule for demand, and that adds complications,” he said.

As the storm loomed, the Global Business Travel Association offered statistics extrapolated from past disruptions and found that in a major hurricane of one to two days’ duration on the East Coast, the total loss in business travel spending would be about $684 million, and 580,000 business trips would be disrupted.
New York Times