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THIS REALLY ISN'T FUNNY ANYMORE
By Joe Brancatelli
If someone told you a second ice storm would strike the South in a month, cripple the Atlanta and Charlotte hubs and then turn north to wipe out hubs in the I-95 Corridor, would you believe them? Of course not. Yet it happened. Fast and hard and at the cost of thousands of cancelled flights and who knows how many disrupted plans. Here is how we covered this particular ice and snowmaker that wiped us out for a week. And forgive the notable lack of humor. These storms just aren't funny anymore. Like a blog, a Pinter play or one particular episode of Seinfeld, read backward since the latest item is on top.
2/16/14, 11AM ET, SUNDAY
OFF OUR KNEES, FINALLY
The system is very slowly rebounding from this week of brutal weather. Across the country, flights ran at 71 percent on-time, according to FlightStats.com, which also recorded "only" 1,011 cancellations. That's about 5 percent of the system, not great but certainly better than where we've been. Snow in New York and Boston kept JetBlue's on-time rating to 51 percent. There were about 200 take-off and landing cancellations yesterday in Boston, which got hit the hardest by the comparatively small storm that raked the Northeast. There were also about 250 cancellations in Newark. After struggling all week with its largest hub, Charlotte, US Airways is still running less than 67 percent on-time nationwide. There were about 100 total cancels at Charlotte yesterday. Today, finally, is looking very much better. That's a good sign for getting back on the road tonight. But beware: More snow is predicted for Chicago on Monday.
2/15/14, 2PM ET, SATURDAY
TALES FROM THE FRONT: AA VS. US AIRWAYS
The burning question of 2014--assuming there can be a burning question when everything is covered in snow--is this: Will American Airlines service decline to US Airways levels as the merger unfolds? Or will USAir be brought up to AA's levels? My guess, sadly, is the former, but here is a real-time comparison from a JoeSentMe member working on a reaccommodation.
This winter mess has allowed me to compare customer service between the two airlines that are rapidly becoming one. Not that American is any great shakes even for us [executive platinum American AAdvantage members], but US Airways seems even worse. It's much easier to get a person at AA than USAir during times of need when cancellations are rampant. I had to ring up customer service at AA [and ask] them to transfer me to USAir so I could rebook a cancelled flight. Ringing up a US Airways number [directly] only resulted in a brief message explaining that they are overwhelmed and we should call back later.
2/15/14, 7AM ET, SATURDAY
BEING RIGHT IS COLD COMFORT
There's very little joy in being right. When I told you (see "Tomorrow Never Knows" below) that it didn't seem possible the airlines could cancel 7,000+ flights on Thursday and then expect to scrub only around 500 on Friday, I was just using common sense. In fact, airlines eventually cancelled 2,169 flights on Friday, February 14. FlightStats.com says that represents 9.1 percent of the system. Only about 62 percent of the remaining flights ran on-time yesterday. You have to wonder why carriers were so slow to pre-cancel flights yesterday. Making believe that they could operate more flights only infuriated business travelers, some of whom have already been waiting days to fly and didn't need the false hope of a flight that would inevitably cancel.
2/15/14, 8PM ET, FRIDAY
TALES FROM THE FRONT: STUCK INSIDE THE BELTWAY
From a JoeSentMe member who is trapped inside the Washington Beltway trying to get back home to the Left Coast: Count me as one of those who are stuck. United cancelled my flight Thursday morning out of Dulles (no surprise), and I've had three subsequent rebookings also cancel. I'm now leaving Saturday night to Chicago, then Sunday morning on to San Francisco and my home airport [Southwest Oregon Regional in North Bend, Oregon]. On the plus side (silver lining here), I always got to the call center quickly in less than three minutes--but probably only because I'm 1K. The agents were patient, informative and tried many, many options. At least I'm stuck at a Hilton with a skybridge to a local mall with a multiplex.
2/14/14, 7:45AM ET, FRIDAY
THREE DAYS, 13,000 FLIGHTS GONE
According to FlightStats.com, the airlines cancelled 31.4 percent of the system nationwide yesterday. That's 7,346 flights, apparently the most since Hurricane Sandy. Add the 4,028 flights (18.4 percent) scrubbed on Tuesday and the 1,622 flights (7.46 percent) dumped on Monday and we're looking at a three-day total of 12,996 flights. What can you say other than, "Wow!" Well, I suppose you could also say, "Maybe I don't want to be a business traveler anymore." Your call.
2/13/14, 7:45PM ET, THURSDAY
TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS
Is it possible for airlines to cancel more than 7,500 flights today and only dump around 500 tomorrow? I don't think so, but right now the carriers are only showing around 500 cancelled flights for Friday. That simply won't hold up, so if you're planning to fly to the Northeast or South tomorrow, be prepared for many last-minute cancellations. As The Beatles sang, "Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream" because it will be rough and confusing tomorrow.
2/13/14, 7:30PM ET, THURSDAY
ONE FOR THE TEXTBOOKS
I believe this is the textbook definition of a collapsed air-travel system. More than 7,500 cancellations so far today and virtually paralyzed hubs from the Deep South to New England. Besides horrific days at the Washington airports, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark and New York/LaGuardia--60 to 90 percent of flights there were dumped--the South did not rise today. Eighty percent of flights at Charlotte were scrubbed and about a third of flights at Atlanta-Hartsfield were dropped. Meanwhile, Boston/Logan, which has so far escaped the worst effects of the storm, now has 2-hour holds on inbound flights that have yet to depart. Flights already in the air headed to Logan are subject to 40-minute delays.
2/13/14, 6:45PM ET, THURSDAY
THE FOG OF IRREGULAR OPERATIONS
You've heard about the fog of war, right? Well, how about the fog of irregular operations? With chaos in the South after the ice storm yesterday and the same storm throwing down inch after inch of snow on the Northeast today, airlines, airports and even the TSA have been unable to cope.
At Charlotte, where US Airways abandoned operations today because it couldn't get enough flight crews to the airport, someone posted a video of the lo-o-o-ng lines of flyers waiting for rebooking. A JoeSentMe member at United's Terminal C at Newark Airport sent this E-mail: "TSA is severely understaffed. ... Expedited checkpoints are closed, as are all but one general checkpoint. Lines run the length of terminal, twice." And another JoeSentMe member said she worked almost three hours with the American elite-service line to rebook a flight itinerary out of Washington to the West Coast.
2/13/14, 3:30PM ET, THURSDAY
TREMBLE BEFORE WINTER STORM SNOCHI
The Winter Olympics has a problem: warm weather and not enough snow. Of course, Sochi is a sub-tropical destination, so maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. But readers of The Washington Post couldn't help noting the irony--and tweaking The Weather Channel at the same time. They decided The Weather Channel's designation for this storm--Pax--was silly. Their preferred moniker? Snochi.
2/13/14, 2:30PM ET, THURSDAY
THE NEXUS OF CLOSED HUBS AND BAD WEATHER
Major airlines have shuttered at least 18 hubs in the last 20 years, the latest being United's "de-hubbing" of its Cleveland operations. The problem with closing hubs? In bad weather, we lose our ability to reroute and avoid problems. Which goes a long way in explaining why every winter storm now seems like a nightmare for business travelers. Click here for details.
2/13/14, 1:45PM ET, THURSDAY
CHARLOTTE GOES DOWN, AGAIN
US Airways' Charlotte hub was all but out of business yesterday as snow pounded the airport. And now it's out of business today because flight crews can't navigate the access routes and get to the airport to fly. As Ted Reed of TheStreet.com reports, there's doubt about tomorrow's schedule, too.
2/13/14, 11:45AM ET, THURSDAY
THE CALL-YOUR-AIRLINE FARCE
Idiot talking-head "experts" and the credulous folks who man Twitter feeds of airports urge you to ”call your airline" when travel conditions get difficult. We know that is stupid, but if you need further proof, consider the following report from a friend trying to get from New York to Chicago.
Called [American Airlines Tuesday night] around 6:30, told there was a 2-hour wait, but that they'd call me back. I checked loads on AA flights and saw only one open flight in the morning, so I high-tailed it to LaGuardia. Walked in and it was empty, thankfully. The agent behind the counter seemed perplexed.
"Why didn't you just call?" she asked. "Because I didn't want to wait three hours and then find out there were no seats," I answered.
When AA did call back, it was 2.5 hours after I made the call, so not bad and pleased I actually got a call back. Even more pleased I went to the airport.
2/13/14, 11:30AM ET, THURSDAY
From a JoeSentMe.com member: "My wife and I got out yesterday at 6:15pm, right on time, on the Charlotte-London/Heathrow flight. This after fighting the snow driving from Greensboro to Charlotte." How odd was that? FlightAware.com says that 55 percent of the departures from Charlotte were cancelled yesterday and 19 percent more were delayed. So there's your thread-the-needle report for this storm.
2/13/14, 11:15AM ET, THURSDAY
AT THE VAST, WORLDWIDE JOESENTME HEADQUARTERS...
The out-my-office window report: When I got to my desk at 5am, I was surprised how little snow had fallen here in the Hudson Valley. It was still light at 8 am. Since then, however, we've been getting massive snowfalls whipped by winds. It's the ugliest day of the winter so far here.
2/13/14, 11AM ET, THURSDAY
RALEIGH DIDN'T LEARN THE LESSON OF ATLANTA
When the first ice storm of the year smashed into Atlanta last month, the city and the region's roads collapsed into gridlock due to bad planning and worse execution. This week, however, Atlanta schools and many businesses closed in advance of yesterday's ice storm. Consequently, roads were clear and no one was stranded in their cars or on school buses. But Raleigh, North Carolina, didn't learn the lesson from Atlanta's experience last month. There was widespread gridlock yesterday as the snow began to fall.
2/13/14, 10:45AM ET, THURSDAY
MASSIVE CANCELLATIONS EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI
Let's cut to the chase. If your destination is East of the Mississippi, chances are you're going nowhere. The South is still trying to cope with the aftermath of yesterday's snow and ice and the Boston-Washington Corridor is getting hammered now with snow falling as fast as four inches per hour.
FlightStats.com reports that 5,800 flights have already been cancelled today. Virtually all of them are to/from or through Eastern or Southern hubs.
The percentage of cancellations at hub airports is, frankly, astonishing. Based on statistics from FlightAware.com, here's what we're looking at:
80 percent of flights cancelled at Baltimore/Washington and Washington/National.
70 percent of flights cancelled at Philadelphia and Washington/Dulles.
60 percent of flights cancelled at Newark and Charlotte, where flight delays are four hours.
50 percent of flights cancelled at New York/LaGuardia.
30 percent of flights cancelled at Atlanta/Hartsfield, New York/Kennedy and Boston.
And guess what? It can only get worse. Road travel conditions in the South--especially around Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham--are brutal and they are rapidly deteriorating in the Boston-Washington Corridor.
If there is any good news, airlines are not massively pre-canceling flights tomorrow. It indicates that, at least right now, airlines think they can start piecing together a schedule of some kind. But it'll still be very difficult flying.
2/12/14, 8:15PM ET, WEDNESDAY
THE JOKE'S ON US...
It's time for a good news/bad news joke about the weather. Unfortunately, there is no good news. All I have is bad news about today and bad news about tomorrow. Joke's on us, huh?
Let's start with tomorrow. With the ice storm whacking the South today turning up the 1-95 Corridor to bear down on hubs from Washington to Boston, the airlines are pulling the plug. Fast and dramatically. Even before the snow has actually started.
According to FlightStats.com, there are already 3,300 cancellations nationwide tomorrow. Sixty percent of flights in Philadelphia are scrubbed. So are 60 percent of the Washington/National flights. More than 50 percent of flights at Newark and Washington/Dulles are already off the board. About a third of flights at New York/LaGuardia have been dumped. At New York/JFK and Baltimore/Washington, the cancellation figure is already 20 percent. There are fewer cancellations for Boston tomorrow because the storm isn't expected to hit there until later.
If you're thinking of beating the storm and sneaking into the Northeast tonight from the West, forget it. Airlines began dumping flights headed East shortly after noon Pacific time today. They simply don't want the planes sitting overnight at Northeast airports and getting trapped. Hard to blame them since the weather geeks are predicting anywhere from 6-18 inches of snow for the region.
Amtrak is slashing service in the Northeast Corridor on Thursday. It is also dropping many longer-haul trains around the Eastern Seaboard tomorrow. Here is its announcement: http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=AM_Alert_C&pagename=am/AM_Alert_C/Alerts_Popup&cid=1251625571842
Frankly, I don't expect Friday to be much better. In most Northeast communities, the snow is predicted to last all day. There won't be much of a window to sneak in any flights. And since huge chunks of the business world are cancelled tomorrow, maybe there isn't much reason to head east now.
Back in the South, most of today's 4,100 cancellations were at airports from Texas to the Carolinas. Delta, the big player at Atlanta, cancelled half of its schedule nationwide today. US Airways dumped 17 percent of its flights. AirTran, based in Atlanta, cancelled more than 60 percent of its flights today.
Around the region, two-thirds of the flights at Atlanta were cancelled. Tomorrow isn't likely to be much better and about a third of tomorrow's Atlanta schedule has already been dumped. Besides, Georgia officials say they don't even expect major roads in the state to be driveable tomorrow morning.
The South's second-largest hub, Charlotte, lost more than half of its flights today. About a third of tomorrow's flights have already been scrubbed at US Airways' primary hub.
In other words, unless your travel is almost totally to and from destinations West of the Mississippi, time to shelter in place. Not much will be moving for the next 24 hours.
Ain't business travel grand?
By the way, I've neglected to mention that the Weather Channel has named this storm Pax. I know there's a snarky comment there somewhere, but the snow has dulled my comedic senses, so you're on your own.
2/11/14, 10:30PM ET, TUESDAY
EVEN THE NWS IS SCARED OF THIS ONE
A series of storms is playing havoc with travel from Texas to Boston and it'll only get worse in the next hours and days.
Delta Air Lines, for example, has already cancelled 50 percent of its flight schedule tomorrow (Wednesday). That mostly reflects expected conditions in Atlanta. AirTran, also based in Atlanta, has cancelled 64 percent of its flights tomorrow. Regional airline PSA, which flies for US Airways out of Charlotte, has cancelled 64 percent of its flights. Other commuters, such as Air Wisconsin (United) and Piedmont (US Airways), have scrubbed a third of tomorrow's schedule.
What's going on? In the South, the usually circumspect National Weather Service is using worlds like "historic" and "catastrophic" to describe an ice storm expected to cover the region tonight and tomorrow. The icing will bring down trees and power lines, making road travel treacherous and knocking out power for days to hundreds of thousands from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Coast.
Predictions for tomorrow are so severe that there are few aircraft overnighting in Atlanta or Charlotte. So even if the storm doesn't happen, there'll be no planes to service morning departures. Hence the early cancellations.
Elements of the same storm will then turn north Wednesday evening and hit the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston on Thursday. The National Weather Service is predicting 4-8 inches of snow and sleet for Washington and Baltimore, 6-8 for Philadelphia, 4-8 for New York Metro--and up to 15 inches in the far north and western suburbs. (That, sadly, includes the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters, where we're all shaking our fists at the windows...) There'll be heavy snow in Boston from Thursday into Friday morning.
Given these dreadful forecasts, the airlines have all extended and expanded their travel waivers. However, they are carefully nuanced, undoubtedly on orders from the bean counters who actually think forcing people to constantly call and change flights several times is a smart, cost-effective practice. Here's what is currently on the board:
Amtrak is scrubbing trains in the region, too. However, Acela and Northeast Regional trains are still scheduled to operate. Here's the notice: http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=AM_Alert_C&pagename=am/AM_Alert_C/Alerts_Popup&cid=1251625562802
And in case you haven't noticed, today has been a nearly impossible travel day in the South. FlightStats.com has recorded more than 1,600 take-off and landing cancellations, almost all of them involving Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta or Charlotte. There have been nearly 4,000 delays.
It goes without saying that there'll be little business done around the South tomorrow. After last month's disaster, most schools are closed tomorrow, businesses will be shuttered and state and local officials will be working to keep folks off the road. The airports will be largely empty, of course. Then expect similar conditions in Washington on Thursday, where any snowfall is cause for alarm and panic.
That's it for tonight. Smoke if you got 'em. And spend a few minutes at the National Weather Service page (http://www.weather.gov) and drill down on the county-by-county forecasts.
2/10/14, 8:45PM ET, MONDAY
THE SOUTH SHALL ICE AGAIN
It's been in the 55-degree range at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The South should be so lucky.
For the next few days, another ice, rain and snowstorm is expected to make air and road travel difficult from Texas through to the Carolinas. If you check the National Weather Services' county-by-county watch/warning map (http://www.weather.gov), you'll see the ugly swathe of trouble slicing through the region. Airlines are out with travel waiver policies and you should remember the mess a couple of inches of snow caused in Atlanta late last month.
In other words, plan accordingly. If you can reschedule trips to the South this week, do it. At a minimum, try to reroute any connecting flights away of Atlanta and other Southern-tier hubs. Leave plenty of extra travel time and remember: Southerners don't handle wintry weather mixes too well. And regional road departments don't have the equipment or know-how to keep roads clear. Even if you can get into your destination in the South, negotiating the road outside the airport could be tricky.
And another warning: If there's too much ice, power lines will come down quickly, thus knocking out electricity in parts of the region.
And note that FlightStats.com is reporting that airlines have already scrubbed nearly 400 take-offs and landings tomorrow at both Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth.
2/03/14, 11:30PM ET, MONDAY
IT'S BEEN FEBRUARY SINCE NOVEMBER
It's February and even the most churlish business travelers can't be too angry when February storms play havoc with their schedules. But it seems as if it's been February since November--with awful weather to match. So when back-to-back storms pounded us from the Rockies to the Atlantic Ocean again this week, it just seemed, well, too cruel for school. Here is how we covered things. Click here for the coverage.
1/27/14, 11:30PM ET, MONDAY
WHEN IT'S SNOWY TIME DOWN SOUTH
When the weather forecasters warned that a big snow and ice storm would hit the South from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Coast, everyone expected trouble. In the air and on the ground. Everyone except for the people who run the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta. They had no emergency plan and apparently didn't know that they were supposed to have one--even though a similar storm three years ago shut down the state for days. Here is how we covered things. Click here for the coverage.
1/20/14, 9PM ET, MONDAY
A LOUSY 60 DAYS OF FLYING
Just when we thought it was safe to get back out on the road after the chaos of the New Year's storm, we got whacked again with snow and extraordinarily cold weather. This new storm was unique--in a bad way--since it clogged Chicago and blanketed East Coast hubs from Boston to Charlotte. In other words, a particular brand of hell for frequent travelers, part of a particularly lousy 60 days of bad weather dating back to just before last Thanksgiving. Click here for the coverage.
1/10/14, 9PM ET, FRIDAY
HAPPY NEW BUSINESS-TRAVEL YEAR. NOT.
So how was your holiday? Quiet because you didn't have to be on the road until the new year? Well, surprise. Meet the new business-travel year, same as the old business-travel year: lots of snow, cancellations, delays and airline double-talk when it comes to their supposed travel waivers. If there was a saving grace about this storm, it's that it began on New Year's Eve and played out during the post-New Year's period when fewer of us were planning to be flying again. Click here for the coverage.
12/05/13, 2:15PM ET, THURSDAY
AND IT WASN'T EVEN WINTER YET...
The official start of winter was still several weeks away and yet there we were, shivering, with our flights cancelled and delayed. A barrage of winter-like storms messed with the nation's air-transportation system since the week before Thanksgiving. Ice and snow hit the flight network hard, particularly in the Dallas Metroplex, where residents are always shocked--shocked!--that they get ice and snowstorms. A brutal winter system raked Northern Europe. Click here for the coverage.
11/24/13, 6PM ET, SUNDAY
BAD WEATHER AND BAD TRAVELERS AHEAD
A pre-Thanksgiving storm was expected to rake much of the nation and destroy travel patterns on some of the busiest days of the year. The busiest days of the year when the least-experienced travelers were expected to clog the nation's airports, train stations and roads. Click here for the coverage.
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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 © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.