Aviation Carriers, agents scramble as winter storm cripples air travel By Kate Rice / January 13, 2014 Share 1 -- An estimated 20,000 flights were canceled over the first six days of the year as one of the most widespread winter storms on record pummeled the eastern half of the U.S. with record low temperatures, dangerous road conditions and heavy snowfall.Nearly 7,000 flights were canceled out of Chicago alone as a combination of frigid air and high winds sent temperatures plunging as low as 42 degrees below zero. In the northeastern region of the country, a nor'easter was followed by a blizzard that swept from the Midwest to the Northeast, then last week joined a polar vortex whose subzero temperatures froze aircraft fuel and antifreeze, snarling air traffic for days. And even after the skies and runways had cleared across the nation, some travelers were unable to get home for two days. Load factors as high 90% added to the challenge of getting millions of displaced passengers back home.The cold was so severe that ground crews could be outdoors for only short periods of time. United Airlines said its ground crews were operating on 10- to 15-minute rotations outside. An American Airlines spokesman, describing its operations in Chicago, said, "Safety and common sense rule the day when it comes to working in extremely cold temperatures."The worst was over by midweek, but airlines were still struggling to return service to normal. For Jan. 8, United operated a reduced schedule, although its numbers were "significantly improved" over the previous day, an airline spokeswoman said. Delta reported that it was having to cancel some regional flights and East Coast shuttle routes. In a news conference Jan. 7, JetBlue said that it was flying about 25 extra flights, mainly to the Caribbean, to get passengers home. Delta said it had scheduled a handful of extra flights — perhaps two or three — to accommodate displaced passengers. A Delta spokesman said strategic use of its hubs gave it a way to design alternative routes on schedule flights to get passengers home. New pilot rest rules that went into effect on Jan. 4 added an extra level of complexity, according to airlines.Storm-related scheduling problems were exacerbated by new, more rigorous FAA rules requiring pilots to have a minimum of 30 consecutive hours free from duty each week and 10 hours of rest, including the opportunity for eight uninterrupted hours of sleep, before each flight duty period. While airlines have had two years to prepare for this rule change, the fact that its introduction coincided with a major storm made the timing less than ideal. Blogging the BluesOf all the airlines, JetBlue was the most public about the woes it and its passengers experienced, essentially baring its soul in blog posts and a telephone news conference. JetBlue COO Rob Maruster laid out the carrier's strategy in managing the storm. It set up a special command center, zeroing in on New York and Boston, where the weather would impact 80% of its flights."That weather forecast drove all of our operating decisions," Maruster said. He, like other airline executives, cited the new work rules as a complicating factor but said they did not drive any decisions. However, most airlines admitted that amid the chaos brought on by the storm, they had not really had a chance to measure the impact of the new rules on their scheduling.Problems at New York's Kennedy Airport also exacerbated some of JetBlue's woes. The airport scheduled a two-hour shutdown for snow removal on Jan. 3, but instead was forced to shut down for four hours. As a result, Maruster said, JetBlue had to divert 18 flights. That sort of last-minute schedule interruption compounded delays in a way that proactive schedule reductions do not, Maruster said.Then, on the morning of Jan. 5, Kennedy was forced to shut down for another two hours when a Delta commuter jet slid off a runway. The plane landed safely but slid into a snowbank when moving from the runway onto a taxiway. There were no injuries. Maruster said that there were two other runway shutdowns at Kennedy on Jan. 5 that affected JetBlue, as well.In anticipation of a flash freeze that did not materialize and as part of a scheduling recovery effort, JetBlue canceled all departures from 5 p.m. Jan. 6 until 10 a.m. Jan. 7 at New York and Boston airports, although some flights continued to arrive. Maruster said it was not a "wholesale shutdown."JetBlue laid out a compensation matrix for customers on its website, which was separate from and in addition to compensation in its existing Bill of Rights compensation. Travel agents were working throughout the weekend to get their clients home. Jennifer Leventhal, president of Sentinel Travel in Northbrook, Ill., a member of the Ensemble Travel Group, was rebooking clients returning from Hawaii, Florida and Israel and working the GDS and telephone lines with US Airways, El Al and United. She played matchmaker for two sets of clients and booked them on a private jet. A client in Key West who usually flies scheduled carriers about 80% of the time decided not to rely on a booking with a scheduled carrier to get back to Chicago, opting instead to use the NetJet service, Leventhal said. She said she had other clients stranded in Miami who rented a car and drove to Key West to share the NetJet flight.Michelle Weller, Travel Leaders, Houston, had multiple storm stories. One agent logged in to Worldspan on her iPad to get a stranded client on the next flight home. Weller said she used SafetoGo software, which alerts agents to canceled flights affecting clients trying to make connections. The alerts often enabled agents to book clients on an alternate flight before they had even landed.Travel disruptions gave proponents of NextGen air traffic control improvements more fuel for their arguments. "NextGen doesn't fix bad weather, but it can mitigate the impact," said Steven Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance. He said that the new technology was capable of reducing the likelihood of a single event causing cascading delays. NextGen enables aircraft to fly closer together, Sigmund said, and makes it easier to fly in the heavy fog that plagued New York airports the morning of Jan. 6.