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Even With Warnings, Blizzard’s Domino Effect Creates Air Travel Mess

December 28, 2010 at 4:20 PM EDT
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The paralyzed air travel system in the Northeast slowly came to life Tuesday after a monster snowstorm stranded thousands. Gwen Ifill speaks with USA Today aviation reporter Ben Mutzabaugh about why it will take days to unravel the transportation mess.

GWEN IFILL: So, how is it that a two-day-old East Coast blizzard is still managing to tangle air travel nationwide tonight?

Ben Mutzabaugh covers the aviation industry for USA Today, and he writes a blog called “Today in the Sky.”

So, it seems to me the only question I can ask you is, what gives?

BEN MUTZABAUGH, USA Today: Yes, this is a big mess for anyone traveling. And I guess that’s obvious from what you have seen.

But it’s a very complex aviation system in the United States, and any — and throughout the world, actually. But when you get a snowstorm like this, it really can — like the woman said, it can really start the domino effects. That’s exactly what we have seen happen with this storm.

We operate with hubs in the United States. So the airlines generally tend to operate with a bank of flights coming in. They sit on the ground for about an hour. Then the bank of flights goes back out. That allows passengers to exchange from one plane to the next.

That works well most of the time. But when you get a storm like today or this weekend — remember, it’s a historic storm, so that the airlines are on the hook, but they’re really dealing with a lot of — a lot of snow.

GWEN IFILL: Is it too much to expect that there would be a backup plan for an eventuality like this?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, I think, unfortunately, for the travelers that are stuck, what we kind of — what we did see was kind of a backup plan.

They knew it was coming. They like, holy cow, this forecast is actually going to be accurate. We are actually going to get two feet of snow or three feet in some places almost. So, I think what they had to do in that situation, they had to decide, do we want to risk having our passengers stuck at the airport, hoping we can operate, but then find out we can’t, or at least we will let them know the day ahead of time, hey, we’re going to start canceling flights, stay at home, wait until the storm passes, and then we will go from there?

GWEN IFILL: So, if you were U.S. Airways and you had a plane in Phoenix that was supposed to be flying for the next day’s flights out of Newark, you just kept it in Phoenix; you didn’t send it?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right. Yes. And some of those planes may have been in Buffalo or Portland. And there are places where it’s really not easy for them to get back into their network.

And then the flight attendants, the pilots that were supposed to be on that flight, they missed their first flight, and then they missed the flight, say, maybe to Houston or to Phoenix. And then — so, when the next morning’s flights are going to start, you know, those flight attendants or pilots may have found a way back. They may not have found a way back.

When it’s one flight, an airline can manage that. When — with Delta, with 850 cancellations, imagine that one scenario playing out 850 times, 850 sets of crews that are always one city off from where they’re supposed to be.

GWEN IFILL: Not just equipment, but crews as well.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right. And it’s very, very complicated for them. It really reverberates very quickly through the system.

GWEN IFILL: I remember there was a big debate in Washington about tarmac delays, the stories about being people being trapped on the tarmac, on planes, unable to return to the terminal. And there was a new rule put in place that was supposed to end that.

Did that have some effect, that airlines, trying not to create tarmac delays, didn’t let people get on the planes at all?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, I think the jury is still out on whether that actually — how big a role that did play in this.

I think even in past snowstorms, some airlines would try to operate through, until they couldn’t. Others did similar what they did to this storm. They canceled proactively. So, we have seen precedent for both types of reactions.

I think it is safe to say, however, that this three-hour tarmac delay may push the needle towards making proactive cancellations, because these are hefty fines. For people who may not have seen, the tarmac delay rule essentially fines an airline if passengers are stuck on a plane for more than three hours.

And it can be up to a million dollars per plane if the airlines get fined for this. So, this is obviously something they don’t want to fool around with.

GWEN IFILL: Are passengers repaid, recompensed in any way, for this inconvenience in general?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: There’s a sliver of good news. And it’s really just a sliver. But, yes, they have some options here.

Most airlines — almost every airline operating to the East Coast has issued some kind of weather waiver that allows essentially customers some options. They can make a change for free without facing a penalty or a fare increase. They can get the value of their ticket and apply it towards another flight within a year.

Or, by federal law, any flight that is canceled, a customer can request a refund for their flight. So, there are some options. Of course, if you needed to be in Fort Lauderdale to catch your cruise, or you had to be with friends in L.A. for New Year’s…

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t do you much good.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: … that doesn’t do you much good at all.

GWEN IFILL: Now, today, three airlines announced fare increases. They picked an incredibly interesting day to do that. Was that something that was a year-end fare increase that was scheduled, or just incredibly poor P.R. timing?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, airlines tinker with their fares all the time. And I think it’s been no secret for the past year even that they have been doing everything they can to push fares up.

But whether it’s legitimate or not, whether we agree with their need to do it or not, boy, it’s just really salt in the wound for anyone who is stuck at Hotel La Guardia, which is what the deputy manager called that airport today.

GWEN IFILL: You would hate to be looking at your PDA and sitting on the floor on the terminal and discovered you’re about to pay more.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: I have been here for two days. Yes, this is going to cost $25 more next time I do it.

GWEN IFILL: Ah. Ben Mutzabaugh, thank you so much.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: My pleasure.