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A VERY BAD WEEK TO FLY
By Joe Brancatelli
Here's the latest news since our newsletter was published on Friday morning. I will update this information as required.
5pm ET 1/13/11, THURSDAY
SNOW IS A VERY EXPENSIVE COMMODITY
Business travelers don't care what snowstorms cost airlines, especially since we're the ones inconvenienced when the white stuff wipes out our travel schedules. But bad weather in the last month in Europe and the United States has shown that snow is a very expensive commodity indeed.
British Airways says last month's snow and subsequent chaos at London's Heathrow Airport cost it about 10 million pounds a day. The airline placed the total cost at 50 million pounds. Virgin Atlantic said the London disruption cost it about $16 million--and the airline is blaming BAA, the firm that operates Heathrow. Virgin is withholding its first-quarter fees until an inquiry into BAA's actions has been completed.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines says the bad weather in Western Europe in mid-December and the Boxing Day Blizzard in the Eastern United States will reduce its fourth-quarter profit by $45 million. And the parent company of United and Continental airlines, United Continental Holdings, says that December's snowstorms cut its fourth-quarter revenue by $25 million and slashed earnings by $10 million.
8am ET 1/13/11, THURSDAY
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU HEAR …
After three days of pain, air travel began returning to normal today. Atlanta and Charlotte are off the deck despite the continued cold. The New York area airports are running at something approaching standard and even Boston's Logan Airport has come roaring back after upwards of three feet of snow fell in portions of New England.
But yesterday was quite a different story and Logan's performance is a matter of what you heard and believed. Massport, which operates Logan, insisted all day yesterday that the airport was open. And it was. But just because an airport is officially "open" doesn't mean that there are any flights coming and going.
Yesterday, for example, "open" Boston only managed 44 departures instead of its usual 472. Of those 44, all but six operated after three in the afternoon. Arrivals were little better: Just 78 got into Logan yesterday compared to 456 on a normal day. All but nine of those were after 3 p.m. (As usual, the statistics come from the superlative FlightStats.com.)
In other words, be careful what you hear: An "open" airport means nothing, no matter what a self-serving bureaucrat says in the heat of a storm.
7:30am ET 1/12/11, WEDNESDAY
THE BRUTE SQUAD IS HERE
Remember what Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride? "Go away or I'll call the brute squad," said Billy Crystal's character.
The brute squad has arrived in the Northeast, Southeast and New England and we might as well go away because almost nothing's moving in the skies this morning.
Let's start in the South, where sub-freezing temperatures continue to keep the region covered in ice after Monday's snowstorm. The region's two major hubs, Atlanta and Charlotte, are operating, but at minimal levels. Most flights there today will be cancelled for the third consecutive day.
Now for the effects of the overnight snowstorm that has basically ended in the East but continues to pound New England.
The Washington area got a glancing blow, but even glancing blows do damage there. All three airports--National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington--are open, but there are heavy cancellations. Proceed with caution.
Up 1-95 a bit, the Philadelphia area got about six inches of snow. Philadelphia International is open, but there are plenty of cancellations and delays. It should improve later in the day, however.
The New York area got whacked with another 6 to 12 inches depending on location. The major area airports--Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark--are basically out of business this morning. Some flights will move later this afternoon, but it is going to be a very difficult day. The good news: The snow has mostly stopped and the winds are not as bad as feared. Things should improve dramatically tomorrow. About 1,200 flights today have been cancelled in the New York area. That's the bulk of the day's total operation. (The worst-hit airport, Islip on Long Island, is closed.)
The major trouble spot now is Boston. New England continues to receive heavy snow and there are some near-blizzard conditions. Predictions are for as much as two feet of snow. Boston Logan Airport is officially open, but nothing is moving. I'd be shocked if any substantial traffic operates there at all today. The region's other airports are similarly affected.
Amtrak trains are running in the Boston-Washington Corridor, but with some delays. If conditions continue to worsen north of New York, however, there will almost surely be some disruption between New York and Boston.
11:45am ET 1/11/11, TUESDAY
COLD COMFORT ABOUT MY ADVICE
I warned you yesterday that this might be a week to stay off the road. Sadly, I was underestimating the difficulty we're facing.
Yesterday's snow and ice storm across the Southeast continues to paralyze the region. From five inches to a foot of snow and ice fell and the area simply can't handle it. Atlanta and Charlotte, the region's two major hubs, are open, but operating at minimal levels. Roads are impassable in many places because there are no plows to clear the snow and temperatures have remained below freezing.
Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways wiped out their Atlanta schedules yesterday and have cancelled most flights into and out of Atlanta again today. As is its typical approach, US Airways has been canceling a ton of its flights out of Charlotte, but telling as few people as possible. It also has the stingiest voluntary reaccommodation policy: According to its rules, US Airways waives the change fee, but apparently will try to charge you any fare difference.
And now we turn to the snowstorm that is bearing down on the 1-95 corridor. Weather experts are predicting between 10 and 20 inches of snow from as far south as Washington to as far north as Boston. The storm, which is hitting Ohio and Western Pennsylvania now, is expected to arrive in the corridor later this evening.
As a result, airlines are pre-canceling flights throughout the region starting this evening. After about 8 p.m. this evening, it may be impossible to get in or out of the area until Thursday.
Batten down the metaphorical hatches. With Atlanta struggling and 1-95 Corridor airports about to go down, travel east of the Mississippi is going to be extraordinarily difficult in the next few days.
Also, pay some attention to travel conditions in Australia. The flooding in Queensland has now reached the state capital of Brisbane. Australia's third-largest city is expecting its worst flooding in more than 100 years.
11am ET 1/10/11, MONDAY
DON'T TRAVEL THIS WEEK
So here's an idea: Don't travel this week. It simply may not be worth it to try.
As you surely know by now, the weather geeks were not overplaying the significance of the storm that hit the Southeast last night and this morning. Snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice, thunder snow and a plague of locusts--okay, not too sure of the last one--have paralyzed a region that simply isn't prepared for these kinds of conditions.
Atlanta Hartsfield Airport is open, but there are virtually no flights operating. Earlier this morning, AirTran Airways wiped out its entire Atlanta schedule today. Delta Air Lines did the functional equivalent of that even earlier. And it wouldn't matter if there were flights running. The roads in the region are so bad that you can't get to or from the airport without extreme danger.
From Arkansas to the Carolinas, the area is essentially closed.
And it gets much worse. This storm is headed north and will apparently meet up with a more traditional winter snowstorm that is rattling around the Midwest. Starting late tomorrow evening and continuing all day on Wednesday, weather folks are expecting a brutal storm that will whack the 1-95 corridor from Virginia to Massachusetts. There could be upwards of a foot of snow. The National Weather Service has already issued winter storm watches from Maryland and Delaware to Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.
At the moment, airlines haven't yet begun offering reaccommodation policies for this next storm, but I expect those offers to appear in the next few hours.
So, bottom line: This would be a great week to clean up the detritus of 2010 and get your 2011 act together. I know I don't have my 2011 datebook yet and I need to grab another couple of pounds of organic French roast...
8:45pm ET 1/9/11, SUNDAY
The weather is worsening in the Southeast and that is already creating havoc with air and road travel.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines says it has cancelled about 300 flights tonight and will dump 1,400 more tomorrow. That's about a quarter of its nationwide schedule. AirTran Airways, also based in Atlanta, has already cancelled about 300 flights. Charlotte, a hub for US Airways, may get hit tomorrow with snow and freezing rain, too.
The governors of a half-dozen states have already urged people to stay off the roads. Which is no surprise since these areas have little or no experience or equipment to handle snow and ice. In Atlanta, for example, the prediction is for five inches of snow. If the accumulation reaches six inches, it would make the storm one of the five largest in the city's history. If you don't have to be in the Southeast tomorrow and don't have to fly, make alternate arrangements.
11:30am ET 1/9/11, SUNDAY
SNOW AND ICE IN THE SOUTH, OH MY!
A large winter storm is shaping up in the Southeast and it is already leading to major cancellations out of Atlanta.
Weather experts are predicting upwards of six inches of snow and sleet in the Atlanta environs starting this evening. As a result, the two Atlanta-hubbed airlines, Delta and AirTran, have begun proactively canceling flights. At least 500 already seem off the board tonight and tomorrow.
If your itinerary in the next few days includes Atlanta or other airports in the Southeast, proceed with caution. Delta and AirTran have already posted re-accommodation policies. Most other carriers have, too. And a reminder here: Access roads to and from the airports may be in bad shape, too. This region is not used to large accumulations of snow and ice, so conditions could be difficult.
One other comment: There's been a lot of chirping lately from some talking head "experts" about how the carriers now jump the gun on cancellations. Their theory: Airlines are desperate to avoid having planes stuck on tarmacs and risk fines from the Transportation Department under the new "passenger rights" regulations.
For starters, the DOT regulations have more than enough loopholes for weather and safety concerns. Besides, not a single carrier has been fined since the DOT regulations went into effect last spring. Moreover, airlines have been pre-canceling flights for years before the DOT regulations. They do it because they don't want planes and crews out of position and stranded around the country. Keeping aircraft close to their hubs help them recover more quickly after the storm and move the maximum number of people.
Finally, for about the billionth time, I ask this: Show me the constituency of travelers willing to sit for endless hours in a tiny tube hoping for a takeoff. Who, exactly, are the travelers willing to sit for four, five or six hours on a plane on a runway because maybe it will operate?
My advice to you is to ignore the idiots and focus on your own travel plans today. As always, check with FlightStats.com for a terrific overview of the situation. It's why I put one of their status boxes on the JoeSentMe home page. You can check your own flight, of course, but you can also check ALL of the arrivals and departures by airport. That'll give you a great macro view of the situation and help you make a personal assessment of the situation.
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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.