By Joe Brancatelli
A note to readers: I'm not a blogger, so this idea of piling the latest-breaking item atop earlier reports about a topic reminds me of a bad Pinter play. So please read down to get the full flavor of Northwest Airlines' crisis of cancellations. It began on Friday, June 22, and, according to an internal Northwest memo, it was all supposed to be over, 240 cancellations later, on Monday, June 25. So much for the best-laid plans of cabbages, kings and cabbage-brained airline kings.

August 2, 2007, 12 a.m. EDT -- To help minimize an end-of-August cancellation crisis, Northwest Airlines has slashed about 4 percent of its schedule for the entire month. What that means is a flight that you have booked for sometime this month may already have been scrubbed. Northwest has been automatically rebooking travelers, but there are already reports that the airline is reaccommodating flyers at weird hours and with wildly inconvenient itineraries. If you're booked to fly Northwest this month, check to make sure your flight is still scheduled to operate. If it isn't, make sure that Northwest hasn't screwed you on the rebooking.

August 1, 2007, 10:15 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines management just hates to treat employees like human beings, so a new deal with its pilots must be a bitter pill indeed. Nevertheless, Northwest announced this evening that the airline and its pilots union have reached a tentative agreement on "contract improvements." Northwest said that it "obtained contractual changes on several work rules pertaining to international flying as well as the settlement of outstanding grievances." In exchange, Northwest restored a benefit snatched away from its pilots in a concessionary 2006 contract: Effective August 1, Northwest pilots flying more than 80 hours a month (the industry standard) will once again receive a 50 percent bonus. Northwest requires that its pilots work as many as 90 hours a month and that has left the pilots with little flexibility and inclination to volunteer for overtime flying. The bonus may convince some Northwest pilots to accept overtime assignments and that may help Northwest operate some of its end-of-month flights in August and September. Even more shocking: Northwest chief executive Doug Steenland--who couldn't be bothered to apologize to customers for 45 days--is now taking responsibility for the crisis of cancellations. "I would and the company would acknowledge that mistakes were made" by management, Steenland said in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story tonight.

August 1, 2007, 5:15 a.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines ended the month canceling 76 flights or about 5.3 percent of its schedule on July 31. Starting today, August 1, Northwest's pilots' monthly duty time resets and there should be minimal disruptions. Except, of course, for the 4 percent of the flights each day that Northwest will lop off the schedule in August.

July 31, 2007, 10:15 a.m. EDT -- Well, surprise, surprise. There's been a Doug Steenland sighting. Or, more accurately, a statement from Northwest Airlines' heretofore absent chief executive. As part of Northwest's report on second-quarter earnings today, a statement attributed to Steenland says that "We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience these cancellations have caused our customers." Since Northwest's crisis of cancellations started in mid-June, you have to assume it was inconvenient for Steenland to apologize any earlier than today. But, hey, what's six weeks between friends, right? Don't you take six weeks to apologize to your customers when you screw up in your business?

July 31, 2007, 3:15 a.m. EDT -- This just in: The Simpsons Movie did $71.9 million at U.S. box offices last weekend. That's more than twice as much as the movie's studio, 20th Century Fox, was predicting for the film. There's only one explanation for the unexpectedly strong performance: All of the "absent" Northwest Airlines pilots decided to see the movie rather than fly their scheduled flights. I've got it on good authority that the "absent" pilots bought up all 10 Simpsons screenings each day last weekend at the AMC Mall of America 14 theater. Okay, okay, so I made up the part about the pilots going to the movies. But it's still more plausible than the stuff coming out of the mouths of Northwest Airlines management.

July 31, 2007, 1:45 a.m. EDT -- Exactly as expected, Northwest Airlines has been coming apart at the seams again as July winds down. According to FlightStats.com, the carrier cancelled 655 flights between July 27 and July 30. That's 11.6 percent of its four-day schedule. In fact, the only folks who had a worse four-day period than Northwest management were the mainstream media reporting the story. Most of the beat reporters dutifully reported Northwest's euphemism--"pilot absenteeism"--as the cause of the end-of-the-month meltdown. And just as Northwest figured, sloppy reporters and the even sloppier copy-desk editors who headline the stories turned "pilot absenteeism" into pilots calling in sick. Expect to hear the same lame excuse today when Northwest reports its second-quarter earnings. Oh, and as of 1:30 a.m., Northwest has already cancelled 48 flights, or 3.5 percent of its operations for today.

July 27, 2007, 9:30 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines tried blaming its late-June cancellations on the weather. Northwest chief executive officer Douglas Steenland liked the phony excuse so much that he awarded himself 159,000 more stock options. Now that Northwest's end-of-July cancellations are skyrocketing again, Steenland has a new strategy: Create a euphemism. Instead of admitting that Northwest management screwed up and pilots are once again running up against monthly duty time limits, Steenland is blaming "pilot absenteeism." In a letter to employees that was conveniently leaked to the press, Steenland wrote: "We saw a significant spike in certain narrowbody pilot absenteeism this morning which forced us to cancel flights. We are operating under the assumption that we will see increases in cancellations on Saturday and Sunday." Amazing that Steenland didn't see the "spike" in "pilot absenteeism" coming today, but he now is able to predict it for tomorrow and Sunday. Selective prescience, some would say. A lie, I would say. Why? There's no such thing as "absenteeism." A pilot is either legitimately out sick, pulling a job action with a phony sick-out or unable to fly because s/he is out of duty time for the month. Of course, there is something we don't know yet: We have no idea how many options Steenland will award himself for inventing the term "pilot absenteeism."

July 25, 2007, 4:30 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines has been canceling about 3 to 5 percent of its flights every day this week, which is horrific compared to most airlines but nearly miraculous when compared to Northwest's performance at the end of June. But now another shoe drops: The airline admits that it will be wiping out at least another 1 percent of its flights in August. That's atop the 3 percent of the August schedule that the airline had already announced would be dumped. What's it mean? Every day the airline starts with a four percent cancellation rate, even though it won't count in the Transportation Department figures.

July 22, 2007, 11:59 p.m. EDT -- It looks like Northwest Airlines has solved none of its end-of-month crew shortage issues even though it has been canceling a disproportionately large number of flights every day in July. Yesterday (Saturday, July 21) Northwest cancelled 6 percent of its flights. Today, its effective cancellation rate was 6.7 percent when you include flights that were dumped more than seven days before departure. That indicates the next nine days are going to be very rough. These cancellation numbers track almost exactly with Northwest's actions last month, when it had a spike in cancellations during the next-to-last weekend of June. The next nine days look awful. So, as I said last month, book away from Northwest Airlines whenever possible. Its drip-drip-drip of daily cancellations don't seem to be helping the end-of-month situation, making the airline wholly unreliable to fly on any day of any summer month.

July 21, 2007, 10:30 a.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines has been consistently canceling flights every day in July in an attempt to mask its crew shortages and to avoid a repeat of its massive meltdown in late June. But it doesn't seem to be working: The cancellation situation has spiked in the last few days, which would be exactly in sync with when the situation started in June. On Thursday (July 19), the airline's effective cancellation rate was 6.9 percent. That includes outright day-of-flight cancellations and a dozen or so scheduled flights that Northwest simply didn't fly and probably cancelled more than seven days out, thus circumventing the Transportation Department Air Travel Consumer Report reporting procedures. Yesterday (Friday, July 20), it cancelled about 5 percent of its scheduled flights.

July 10, 2007, 9:14 p.m. EDT -- You jcan't make this stuff up, fellow travelers. For the 10 days in June when Northwest Airlines was enduring its crisis of cancellations and inconveniencing untold thousands of travelers, chief executive Douglas Steenland was nowhere to be found. He made no public appearances, issued no statements of regret or apology and certainly wasn't seen anywhere around Northwest's Minneapolis/St. Paul hub trying to help his overworked ground crews and displaced passengers. So where was Doug? In his office writing himself some new stock options. According to Dow Jones, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Friday evening, June 30, said that Steenland received 159,071 options on Thursday, June 29. That award comes just two weeks after he received a similar amount of options. Both sets of options vest in nine equal installments, says Dow Jones. To be fair, the options are "under water," which is financial jargon that means Steenland could buy NWA stock cheaper on the open market. But the point remains: Instead of stepping up and taking responsibility for his airline's operational collapse or reassuring customers that it would never happen again, Steenland was hunched over his desk at Northwest headquarters rewarding himself for his carrier's 1,200-plus cancellations. By the way, Steenland earned about $2.6 million last year and received stock and options worth ten times that much when Northwest exited bankruptcy last month. A 15-year flight attendant at Northwest earns about $35,000 a year.

June 30, 2007, 11 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines cancelled about 60 flights total today (June 30) and yesterday (June 29). Compared to the last week, that's great news for Northwest passengers. It's about twice as high as normal, however. And it also may be the template for how Northwest intends to operate throughout the rest of the summer: Cancel a heftier-than-normal part of your schedule each day, but try to avoid a late-month meltdown. Why go that route? A slow, steady drag on the schedule may not be noticed by the media. This is probably a smart bet on Northwest's part since the general media is generally somnambulant until there is a huge crisis. But we'll be watching and if Northwest tries a drip-drip-drip on its daily schedule, we'll ring the alarm bells.

June 29, 2007, 7 p.m. EDT -- The airline world is a curious place. And nothing is more curious than an airline that a week denying it had a problem finally deciding to cure the problem. You can read about Northwest's "solution" in the item below, but give the airline's statement a quick read for its, well, let's say just for its more creative concepts. Among other thing, Northwest has finally "recogniz[ed] that summer thunderstorms and air traffic control congestion are inevitable." It also tries to fudge the numbers by combining its cancellation rate with that of its commuter carriers, an oddity since Big Six airlines generally try to distance themselves from their regional partners. (Northwest, in fact, once claimed that it bore no responsibility for the crash of a plane operated by a commuter partner--even though the aircraft bore the Northwest name, carried the Northwest code and all the tickets were sold by Northwest.) More than a week into the crisis, it also has a new claim: Pilot "absenteeism … was 80 percent higher in June 2007 versus June 2006." Of course, absenteeism is a meaningless phrase. For all we know, Northwest is including in that category pilots who have timed out for the month and can't work any more flights, pilots who have declined to work overtime and lord knows what else.

June 29, 2007, 6 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines is still bobbing and weaving and blaming everything but management incompetence for its crisis of cancellations. But today is decided to "solve" its crisis. And how does Northwest management propose to solve its cancellation problem? With cancellations, of course. According to its through-the-looking-glass statement, Northwest will dump its second daily Detroit-Frankfurt flight effective July 18. And, in August, it will cancel 3 percent of its domestic flights. In other words, Northwest will continue to be wildly unreliable all summer, it will just manage the unreliability better.

June 28, 2007, 11:45 p.m. EDT -- Northwest's crisis of cancellations eased a bit today--the airline dumped "just" 140 flights, or almost exactly 10 percent of its schedule. This comes against a backdrop of a generally dreadful day on the road thanks to bad weather. Delays around the system ran upwards of four hours and several major hub airports were hit with long ground stops. And American Airlines, still reeling from the particularly brutal weather in North Texas, cancelled 209 flights today. Delta Air Lines said it was prepared to "thin" its schedule by upwards of 200 flights due to the weather, although its actual cancellation rate seemed much lower.

June 28, 2007, 1:15 p.m. EDT -- I meant to mention this earlier in the week, but the Transportation Department (DOT) has fined Northwest Airlines $40,000. Northwest's infraction? DOT inspectors caught Northwest gate and ticket-counter agents breaking the rules concerning denied-boarding policies. According to DOT rules, an airline is supposed to provide, on request, a written explanation of denied-boarding policies. Northwest hasn't been doing it, at least at Washington/National and Baltimore-Washington airports. But DOT went further and publicly disputed Northwest's pro forma claim that it was committed to observing the rules and training its agents properly. DOT said that its inspections were "indicative of a general pattern of noncompliance by Northwest." Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, we are shocked--shocked!--to learn that Northwest might not be absolutely attuned to doing the best for its customers. What a distressing and unexpected development!

June 27, 2007, 10:30 p.m. EDT -- On Day Six of Northwest Airlines' four-day crisis of cancellations, the carrier dumped 235 flights. That's 16.2 percent of its daily schedule, the highest failure rate yet. Another ominous sign: Cancellations are creeping up at Northwest's commuter carriers, too. Mesaba, for example, cancelled about five percent of its flights today.

June 27, 2007, 9:30 p.m. EDT -- American Airlines and its American Eagle commuter carriers cancelled a combined 457 flights today, almost 20 percent of its schedule. The cause: record-setting rains in North Texas that played havoc with American's huge Dallas/Fort Worth hub.

June 26, 2007, 10:30 p.m. EDT -- On the fifth day of a four-day crisis, Northwest Airlines has cancelled an eye-popping 201 flights. That's slightly more than 14 percent of the airline's schedule today and there are still a few dozen flights that are due to depart.

As is always the case, Northwest's Detroit/Metro hub is taking the biggest hit. Although Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul have about the same number of scheduled Northwest departures (299 for DTW and 306 for MSP), Detroit travelers suffered through more than twice as many cancellations (64) as Minneapolis flyers (30). On a percentage basis, however, Chicago/O'Hare is doing far worse. Seven of Northwest's 23 flights from ORD dumped today. That's a startling and distressing 30 percent.

Now some good news/bad news.

The good news? Northwest didn't cancel any of its Tokyo arrivals or departures today, which means that the airline is clearly making an effort to keep flights to and from its transpacific hub on track.

The bad news? Northwest cancelled more flights today, the day after the crisis was supposed to end, than it has in any of the four previous days. So far today, in fact, Northwest has cancelled almost as many flights as the 240 that it had predicted it would cancel over the past four days combined.

By the way, if you're keeping count, Northwest has now cancelled more than 825 flights in five days. With an average passenger load of, say, 100 passengers on each flight, that's 82,500 inconvenienced flyers.

June 26, 2007, 7:00 p.m. EDT -- Now that the general media has woken from its slumber and Northwest Airlines is getting hammered for the atrocious number of cancellations that it has run up in the last five days, the airline has a new excuse.

Late today, Northwest said "a higher than normal level of pilot absenteeism" is partly to blame for the crisis.

My response is probably the same as every business traveler's: Prove it. Produce the numbers. Show us exactly what you mean by high absenteeism. Until they produce the numbers, I assume Northwest is lying.

My cynicism isn't inbred or reflexive, but it comes from hard experience with Northwest Airlines flatly lying about the objective facts.

When its mechanics went on strike in the summer of 2005, Northwest kept insisting that its flights were operating normally. But I started compiling the numbers using the flight tracker on Northwest's home page and learned that the airline was collapsing, running on-time less than half of the time. For an entire week, Northwest denied it and its spokesman dismissed our numbers as "random," "arbitrary," "unscientific" and a couple of other pejorative adjectives.

But FlightStats.com, which wasn't making its numbers public back then, eventually came to our rescue. FlightStats.com's tracking proved our "99 Northwest Flights on a Chart" was uncannily accurate. It was only then that Northwest admitted that its operations were, in fact, a shambles.

And remember when US Airways lost thousands of pieces of luggage during its Christmas, 2004, meltdown in Philadelphia? US Airways management also claimed that employees were calling in sick and that a spike of absenteeism had caused the problem. The government eventually investigated that claim and you may recall the result: Not only did US Airways lie about the rate of absenteeism, the government also concluded that the entire luggage crisis was caused by inept management.

June 26, 2007, 4:30 p.m. EDT -- Northwest Airlines' official, phony-baloney excuse for its 5-day-old cancellation crisis is that "severe weather" is to blame for the crew shortages. So, by extrapolation, it must be the weather gods who laid off all those pilots.


















Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

As you can see by the chart, Northwest has decimated its corps of pilots and co-pilots since the year 2000, the last time anything could be considered "normal" in business travel. To service its Atlantic routes, Northwest had 13 percent fewer pilots in 2006 than it did in 2000. Its corps of Pacific-route pilots was almost 23 percent smaller. And on domestic routes, Northwest is running with more than 26 percent fewer pilots than it employed in the year 2000. These raw statistics come from the fine folks at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, who were kind enough to compile the numbers today and send them to journalists.

As we've reminded you about a zillion times in the last few days, pilots can work a federally mandated maximum of 100 hours a month. When they reach that point, they cannot fly. Airlines traditionally have a pool of "reserve" pilots to service the end-of-month flights when the regular pilots "time out" for the month. As Northwest's pilot's union has been saying for months, however, Northwest Airlines simply doesn't have enough pilots to fly the carrier's existing schedule.

Jupiter, the Roman god of weather, was unavailable for comment about his decision to cut Northwest's pilot's pool so sharply. And no one has seen or heard from Northwest chief executive Douglas Steenland since at least the time of the Romans, either.

Monday, June 25, 2007, 11:30 p.m. EDT --Northwest Airlines continues to cancel an atrociously high number of flights. As of 11 p.m. today, it had cancelled 173 departures or slightly more than 12 percent of its schedule.

The general news media finally caught up with the story today--Way to go all you snoozing editors in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis!--and that smoked Northwest Airlines out of its corner. It issued a statement, which, to the surprise of no one, assumes that you are stupid.

It admitted only that "crew shortages…have resulted in some flight cancellations." Then it went on to blame "severe weather" that "disrupted air service across the East Coast and Midwest for a number of airlines."

Needless to say, double-digit percentages of flight cancellations over several days is not "some flight cancellations." And no other airline is recording a notably high number of unexplained cancellations, so you'd have to believe that Northwest flights and facilities were hit by very specific and unique severe weather. Just to be sure, I did check with the National Weather Service. They have no reports of storms of that targeted Northwest flights or facilities.

So where does that leave us? Northwest has now cancelled 625 flights in 96 hours. The outlook for Tuesday (June 26) does not look good, either. The airline has already cancelled 16 flights for Tuesday.

Bottom line? Book away from Northwest through the end of this month. And do not risk booking any Northwest flights in the second half of July or August, either. The same crew shortages are likely to occur then, too. Maybe by August, Northwest will be blaming meteor showers for the crew shortages. (And remember: Some Continental- and Delta-coded flights are operated by Northwest Airlines.)

A final note: Severe thunderstorms in the Dallas-Fort Worth area today led American Airlines to cancel a total of 124 flights. That's 5 percent of its schedule. More than half of American's cancellations were departures from its hub at DFW Airport.

Monday, June 25, 2007, 10:30 a.m. EDT -- Yesterday (Sunday, June 24) was the worst day yet for Northwest Airlines cancellations and today looks no better. The airline cancelled 193 flights yesterday, a startling 14 percent of its schedule. This follows Saturday's 159 cancellations (12 percent) and Friday's cancellation of 100 flights.

The airline has already cancelled 82 flights today. Normally, a 1-2 percent cancellation rate is the industry standard.

Northwest continues to say nothing publicly about this matter, although some JoeSentMe members flying on Northwest say that the airline contacted them in advance about a cancellation and protected them on other flights. Other members tell me that they received notification of a cancellation, but little rebooking help. And still other members say that they learned nothing until they showed up at an the airport.

A friend at Northwest passed me an internal Northwest memo and it is clear that the airline KNEW IN ADVANCE that it would be canceling flights in great numbers. According to the memo, however, it expected to cancel "approximately 240 flights" between Friday and today.

The situation obviously has spiraled out of control since more than twice as many flights have been cancelled than Northwest projected. And, at this point, there's no reason to think that the cancellations will ease after today. I think that the rest of Northwest's schedule for the end of this month is now suspect.

As you probably know, pilots have a federally mandated maximum duty time. They cannot work when that monthly maximum is reached. This high degree of cancellations is caused by Northwest not having enough crew members with time left to work--and insufficient back-up and reserve crews to fill the gap. Both the pilots and flight attendants unions at Northwest have publicly warned that the airline was understaffed. As you'd expect, Northwest officials blithely dismissed the warnings.

So what should you do if you're scheduled to fly on Northwest (or a Delta or Continental code-share flight operated by Northwest) through this week? Change your flight if you can.

According to the internal memo I have received, Northwest says that travelers on cancelled flights can change on a cabin-by-cabin basis until July 7 and class-to-class basis until September 30. But when an airline is canceling double-digit percentages of its schedule, I don't think that hoping that you won't be cancelled is enough. If you have other options, pursue them and demand that Northwest waive the fees. They may refuse, but it is worth a shot.

Finally, this end-of-June situation bodes badly for travel on Northwest at the end of July, August and September, too. Needless to say, I wouldn't book Northwest after the middle of any of the upcoming months.

Sunday, June 24, 2007, 9:30 a.m. EDT -- All this weekend, Northwest Airlines has been canceling an inordinate number of its scheduled flights. On Friday, it cancelled 100 flights, or 7 percent of its schedule. On Saturday, it cancelled 159 flights, or 12 percent of its schedule. The pattern is continuing today, with 59 cancellations already as of 9:15 a.m. EDT.

Most airlines hope to hold cancellations down to 1 or 2 percent, so you can see that this is a serious matter. If you are scheduled to fly on Northwest today or in the next week (I'll explain that more fully in a moment), please be sure to reconfirm before going to the airport. And remember: Some Delta- and Continental-coded flights are actually code-shares operated by Northwest, so all you Continental and Delta flyers pay heed, too.

We've heard nothing from Northwest about this, of course. But the airline's unions have complained for months that the carrier is understaffed and would not be able to fly its complete schedules this summer. Needless to say, Northwest has denied the charges, but the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, in the cancellations.

Since we are near the end of the month and flight crews are running out of duty time--the Federal Aviation Administration limits the number of hours per month a pilot can work--Northwest is clearly facing a crew shortage. It may be canceling flights this weekend as a way to keep crews available during the week. Logic would then dictate that next Saturday, June 30, would be an awful day to fly Northwest. But it may also be that Northwest will be canceling many flights throughout this entire week.

Again, please check your itineraries carefully, then double check them. And be ready for an unpleasant surprise if Northwest cancels you without warning after you've reached the airport. And for your own safely, I'd clearly avoid booking Northwest on weekends late in July and August, too. The same pattern is likely to be repeated then.

These statistics come from FlightStats.com, which is clearly going to be the business traveler's best friend this summer. Check your flight status and get more information from FlightStats from the box on the JoeSentMe.com home page and the JoeSentMe.biz members-only home page.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.