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ILL WIND, LIKE HAROLD ARLEN PREDICTED
By Joe Brancatelli
Week of May 23, 2011 -- I've been humming the Harold Arlen classic, "Ill Wind." After all, what's more appropriate for this awful travel week than a line like "You're blowin' me no good."
The week began with cancellations and delays in Europe no thanks to the ill winds that blew the ash from Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano into the air space of northern Europe. Then more ill winds: Another round of brutal rain and hail storms and tornadoes in the American heartland. That made for the worst days of travel since the snow days of this past winter.
Here's how we've been covering this week's events. And, as always, the latest news is at the top, the earliest news at the bottom.
THE BAD, THE WORSE AND THE WORST ON THE ROAD TODAY
Remember those awful days of early January and February? If you were flying today, you pretty much got the winter feeling again. How bad was it? As of 11:45 pm Eastern, there were 1,070 cancellations and almost 8,800 delays. Worse, (if that's possible) is that the bulk of the delays and cancellations were at some of the nation's most important hubs, including Chicago/O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, New York/LaGuardia and Detroit/Metro.
The ugly tale of the traveling tape?
+ O'Hare had 234 cancellations and 1,498 delays.
+ DFW had 205 cancellations and 1,060 delays.
+ Atlanta had 199 cancellations and 1,215 delays.
+ Detroit/Metro had 94 cancellations and 383 delays.
+ LaGuardia had 95 cancellations and 462 delays.
The worst news? With yesterday and today's delays and cancellations, weekend travel is going to be scrambled. Have patience getting home on Friday and lots of luck if you've got a holiday trip planned.
IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE LAST WINTER...
The tornadoes and other storms that whacked the nation's heartland early in the week had mostly spared major business-travel destinations and didn't scramble air travel too badly. Today was a very different story, however.
In short, it was a rotten day to fly, especially if you used the big mid-continent hubs.
As of 11pm, FlightStats reported more than 1,800 cancellations and around 8,000 delays nationwide. Hardest hit was Chicago/O'Hare, which racked up more than 800 cancelled take-offs and landings and almost 1,400 delays. Dallas-Fort Worth had about 400 cancellations and more than 900 delays. Detroit/Metro suffered more than 300 cancellations and more than 600 delays. It was also a tough day for delays in Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis, Denver and at Chicago/Midway.
Southwest Airlines had more than 1,700 delays, by far the worst among the major airlines. American Airlines also had a tough day, with more than 1,000 delays and 376 cancellations. American's numbers are worse than they look, however, since its commuter carrier (American Eagle) had 832 delays and 324 cancellations.
Can you say "long weekend ahead"?
SAY GOODNIGHT, GRIMSVOTN
It wasn't fun flying from northern Germany today, but here's the good news: The volcanic ash cloud crisis seems to be done for now.
Airports you rarely see at the top of the cancellation and delay charts--Hamburg and Berlin/Tegel--got whacked by the cloud this morning. More than 100 flights were dumped at Hamburg. Almost as many were scrubbed at Tegel.
But that seems to be it--at least for now. The plume of ash is gone and eruptions at the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland have stopped. It looks like we can now get back to the normal craziness on the road in Europe.
BRITISH EDITOR RIPS THE BIG BULLIES OF BIG EUROPE AIRLINES
Think I'm tough on airline chief executives? You should read this by Steve Connor, science editor of London's The Independent newspaper. He's infuriated by both Willie Walsh, who runs the company that owns both British Airways and Iberia, and Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair.
Connor doesn't pull punches. He accuses both Walsh and O'Leary of putting public-relations spin over safety. They "are guilty of playing to the gallery of public opinion in their criticism of the measures taken to minimise the risk to air travellers. They know their stock will rise by condemning those whose job it is to ensure airline safety – even if it means flight cancellations."
And you know what? Connor is right. In spades. And he reminds Walsh and O'Leary that they will have passengers' blood--and huge liability issues--on their hands if they keep trying to bully aviation authorities and lie to the public.
A BAD DAY IN AMERICA AND A WORSE NIGHT AT DFW
It was a very tough day to be on the road on Tuesday in America and an awful Tuesday evening at Dallas/Fort Worth in specific.
+ A hailstorm all but shut down Dallas/Fort Worth Tuesday evening. According to FlightStats.com, only 45 of 231 flights scheduled to depart after 6 p.m. local time ever got off the ground. Only about a third of the nearly 300 flights scheduled to arrive at DFW after 6 p.m. made it in. (Tuesday evening's problems followed a tough Monday at DFW, which racked up more than 500 cancellations and more than 1,000 delays.) Expect some early-morning delays and cancellations on Wednesday as DFW-hubbed American Airlines scrambles to match planes, available crews and schedules.
+ It was a miserable day to fly around the country on Tuesday. FlightStats.com reports there were around 6,500 delays during the day, with notable slowdowns at Chicago/O'Hare, all three New York area airports, Denver and Atlanta. That was almost as bad as Monday, when the violent storms in the middle of the country and rain and fog along the East Coast led to about 8,800 delays.
500 CANCELLATIONS IN SCOTLAND AND NORTHERN EUROPE
It was a difficult Tuesday in Northern Europe.
+ Ash from the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland led to about 500 cancellations on Tuesday, most of them on flights to and from Scotland. There were also a few volcano-related cancellations in Birmingham, England, and Sweden.
+ German aviation authorities say they won't permit take-offs or landing at a half-dozen northern airports including Berlin and Hamburg on Wednesday morning. There also may be some scattered cancellations elsewhere in Northern Europe.
+ Transatlantic flights heading to and originating in Britain and Northern Europe have been running 30-60 minutes late as aircraft navigate around the ash cloud.
RYANAIR FIBS ABOUT ITS VOLCANO PREPARATIONS
Ryanair took a big hit during last year's volcanic ash crisis and it was exacerbated when the discount carrier was fined by EC authorities for stranding passengers at various airports around the continent. Ever since, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary has been whining about aviation authorities and their decisions.
And it took about 15 seconds for O'Leary to mount a verbal assault on regulators and meteorologists and their decisions regarding the Grimsvotn volcano this week. According to him, airlines should be free to decide where and when to fly through the ash clouds without interference from regulators.
But even by O'Leary's standards of bombast, his airline's actions today are outrageous. In short, he got caught fibbing about the work Ryanair had done to assess the safety of flying through the ash clouds.
As you can see by the statement posted on the Ryanair Web site, O'Leary and his minions insisted they had run some test flights and found no danger. Specifically, Ryanair said it operated a one-hour verification flight up to 41,000 feet in Scottish airspace. "There was no visible volcanic ash cloud or any other presence of volcanic ash and the post-flight inspection revealed no evidence of volcanic ash on the airframe, wings or engines."
The problem with the claim? The Civil Aviation Administration, the British regulators, said Ryanair did no such thing. "Their claim that they flew through high-density ash isn't accurate," a CAA spokesman said. The route of the Ryanair flight had been retraced on radar, showing that it didn't enter zones with higher concentrations of ash, he added.
High-density ash has been identified as the most dangerous form of volcanic debris and the material most likely to clog jet engines and cause operational failures.
SCOTLAND IS OFF THE ROUTE MAP TODAY
Scotland is basically off the route map on Tuesday. Most airlines have cancelled their flights to or from the country's airports. And Continental Airlines cancelled its Newark-Edinburgh flight last evening.
All flights elsewhere to and from Europe are currently on the schedule and Iceland's airports reopened late yesterday. The next obstacle: Ireland, England and Scandinavia later today and on Wednesday. Check carefully if they are in your travel plans.
The best sources for now:
+ Eurocontrol Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/eurocontrol
+ Eurocontrol site: https://www.public.cfmu.eurocontrol.int/PUBPORTAL/gateway/spec/index.html
+ Met Office Web site: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/latest/volcano
+ Edinburgh Airport Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/edi_airport
+ UK Civil Aviation Authority: http://www.caa.co.uk/
ICELAND'S DOWN, SCOTLAND MAY BE NEXT
The eruption of Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano on Saturday is beginning to have some impact on travel in Europe and you'd be well advised to monitor the situation if you have transatlantic flights in the next 48 hours.
Iceland's main airport, Keflavik, near the capital of Reykjavik, was closed yesterday. Flights are scheduled to resume later this evening local time.
If current forecasts hold, parts of the ash cloud are expected to affect Irish and Scottish airspace late tonight and tomorrow local time. The impact on flight schedules is uncertain, however. Airlines and national aviation authorities seem intent on keeping the system operating despite the cloud, desperate to avoid a rerun of last April, when millions of travelers were delayed or cancelled.
How to keep up-to-date on developments? As was the case last winter, during the weather-related groundings, Eurocontrol's Twitter feed is emerging as the best one-stop spot for news and conditions. It's at http://twitter.com/eurocontrol. The Web site of Eurocontrol, the centralized air-traffic system for Europe, offers more technical details here. Look at the upper right, in the section marked "Network Headline News."
Finally, check the Web site of the Met Office, the United Kingdom's national weather service. Besides handling British weather, it is responsible for the forecasting between Iceland and continental Europe. Its volcano coverage is here.
Bottom line? From what I've gleaned from the weather and volcano wonks, this eruption and the ash cloud aren't as bad or as potentially disruptive to travel as last year's outburst from the Eyjafjallajokul volcano. It shouldn't cause the nightmarish travel scenario we endured last spring.
But this is the weather, folks. Predictions are just that, predictions. They aren't guarantees.
WHY AIRLINES CANCEL WHEN THE VOLCANIC ASH FLIES
Why do airlines make so much ado about volcanic ash? Because it's not ash at all. The intense heat of the volcano turns the eruptions into tiny shards of glass and bits of sand. The sand and glass clogs jet engines and can cause catastrophic failures of an aircraft's power plants. Don't think it can happen? Here is a Reuters story about a British Airlines incident involving volcano ash almost 30 years ago. It's why airlines now ground aircraft in similar situations.
THE RAPTURE'S LATE, BUT VOLCANOES ARE BACK
Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano began erupting today for the first time since 2004.
As you'll recall, eruptions from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul volcano last year spread volcanic ash across the North Atlantic and much of Europe. Thousands of flights were cancelled last spring and millions of travelers were stranded, delayed, rerouted and generally inconvenienced. (Details are here.)
It's too early to tell whether this new volcanic action will affect air-travel patterns. According to the scientists, it'll all depend on how long the eruption continues and where the winds blow the ash in the coming days.
On the other hand, that Harold Camping fellow did say volcanoes and earthquakes (and there have been some smaller quakes in Iceland after the eruption) were the first sign of the end of days, which was scheduled for today.
However, like the airlines, Camping's Rapture has been late in arriving. And, just like the airlines, Camping's Web site has gone down and neither he nor his people are available to explain the delay.
I'll update you if the volcanic ash begins to affect transatlantic or other flights. Unless, of course, it is The Rapture and then you are on your own. …
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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 © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.