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Western Blizzard Causes Cancellation of Thousands of Flights

December 21, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, how the blizzard in the West is disrupting travel during this busy holiday season. So far, the storm has led to the cancellation of about 2,500 flights. What will that mean for travelers in the days ahead?

David Field is the U.S. editor for Airline Business magazine, and he joins me now with some answers.

And, David, you’ve estimated that taking Denver out of the system takes out about 1 percent to 2 percent of flights nationwide. Why does Denver send such ripples out into the national network?

DAVID FIELD, Airline Business Magazine: Denver’s an extraordinarily important airport because of the system of hubs and spokes. We still have hub airports, big airports where a lot of airplanes go to let their passengers connect with other flights.

It’s one of the biggest in the country, the fifth-largest airport in the country, and it is the major western hub for United, which is number two in the world. And it’s just about tied for number one in the country, which means you’re talking about a lot of airplanes and a lot of people, and, as you can see, a lot of grief.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they say that even once they get the runways all plowed and the snow stops falling, it’s going to take days to untangle this knot. Why does it take so long to work off that backlog?

DAVID FIELD: Well, airlines schedule in an awfully complex way, particularly where hubs are involved. They schedule what are called lines of flight, which is airplane number 23 doesn’t just go somewhere and go back. It goes from Boston to Chicago to Denver to Boise to Seattle back down, plop, plop, plop.

And with each segment of flight, you also have the complexity of the pilots and the flight attendants’ schedules, and they have to be scheduled not just for the whole line of flight, but each segment. One segment goes out, the rest of the segments get hurt.

RAY SUAREZ: So once the snow stops and once the airline is cleared to reopen, all your equipment and your crews are in the wrong place?

DAVID FIELD: That’s right. And they’re not just there in Denver stuck; they’re in the wrong place around the country.

Airlines react to closures

RAY SUAREZ: So I guess it gets even more complicated, because this is such a big travel week. Not only do you have the 4,500 people sitting in the airport right now, but tomorrow thousands more are going to come in. There's not a day to catch your breath, is there?

DAVID FIELD: There's not a day to catch your breath, and there's not a lot of room on the airplanes. We've been running at about 80 percent of occupancy through the first nine months of this year. And that means that there might be 20 percent of the seats empty on an average.

But if you go on a flight at 7:00 a.m. or go on a flight at 6:00 p.m., there's going to be one seat, two seats, and that's it. I've been on four segments in the last month. I saw six empty seats, and that was it.

RAY SUAREZ: So can the airlines respond -- and I guess we're talking so specifically about United, because Denver is a United hub -- can the airlines respond quickly by, for instance, sending bigger jets back into the system to try to soak up some of that backlog?

DAVID FIELD: They can, and they can't. United, like some of the other really big airlines, has an incredibly sophisticated interrupted operations program. It's a computer way to figure out how to get people back to their flights.

It's got a couple of spare airplanes in there dedicated to Denver. And what will probably happen, once the snow is away, they'll just say, "Everyone going to Boston, get on this airplane, and we'll take you there, even though your bag may not get there with you."

RAY SUAREZ: So if you're ticketed to go somewhere that's been disrupted by this weather event and disrupted by the Denver closure, what's your best course of action now?

DAVID FIELD: Your best course of action is check the airline Web site. If you have signed up for the alerts where they tell you if your flight is late, check that. Go to the airport real early. Be real patient. And expect to be inconvenienced if you're anywhere out West.

There are going to be big parts of the country where there aren't going to be hassles. Just go early.


RAY SUAREZ: Now, sometimes if you get stranded, sometimes if you miss your connection or get stuck, the airline is on the hook for meals, the airline is on the hook for accommodations. In what circumstances aren't they liable in that way?

DAVID FIELD: They're not liable for lateness that's your fault. In cases like this, whether or not there's legal liability, the airline usually bites the loss and goes out of its way to re-accommodate passengers.

If you look on the Web site for United today, they say, "Don't worry. We'll take care of you." And, yes, they may lose money, but it is not worth offending and insulting stranded passengers.

All airlines have what's called a distressed passenger policy. And in many cases, they'll give you a little coupon for free meals or a coupon for discounted or even a free hotel, whether or not legally they have to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: But if you're bedding down for the night in an airport, are they obliged to give you a hotel room or at least try?

DAVID FIELD: They're obliged to try, but hotels are even worse than airlines in terms of getting extra space. Airlines are 80 percent full. Hotels are even more full this year. Hotels are even more expensive. Hotels have been able to charge extraordinarily high rates because of the increased demand and the relatively limited supply of new hotels.

So even if you're not in Denver where you can't get to a hotel, you may be in a city where there are no hotel rooms. The airlines and the airport do have an obligation to give you blankets, give you cots, give you food.

Look, airlines are in the business of taking care of people. You and I may not believe it because you're really thinking the airline is the enemy. They're not. They're not out to get you. And they're not going to make money from offending you or insulting you. They'll do what they can.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there ways in which this event will stretch out into next week and the travel that begins for New Years? A lot of people go away around New Years, too.

DAVID FIELD: It's possible. A lot of it depends on the weather, but bear in mind, right around Christmas, it's a real peak-and-valley situation. The 24th is going to be crazy. The 25th, there will be a fair amount of flex time. The 26th, there will be some flex time. The 27th, maybe it will get crazy again.

But you're going to have geographic peaks and valleys and day-of-week peaks and valleys. We may get out of this by the end of the weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: David Field, thanks for joining us.

DAVID FIELD: It's my pleasure.