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How airlines prepare for big storms
First Published Feb 08 2013 08:06 am • Last Updated Feb 08 2013 02:39 pm

NEW YORK • As the Northeast braces for its largest winter storm in more than a year, airlines are already employing a strategy that has served them well in recent years: Cancel flights early and keep planes and crews — and passengers — away from snowed-in airports.

By Thursday night, up to 2 feet of snow was forecast along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor from the New York City area to Boston and beyond. In response, airlines canceled hundreds of flights for Friday, a figure likely to eventually surpass 1,000.

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That means emergency planning for Boston’s Logan International Airport, the three major airports in the New York Metropolitan area and smaller airports around the region.

Here are some questions and answers about what the airlines are doing:

Q: What are the airlines doing differently?

A: Just a few years ago, a powerful storm dumping two feet of snow on the Northeast would have brought havoc to some of the region’s busiest airports. Passengers would sit on a plane for hours, hoping to take off. Families slept on the airport floor with luggage piled up around them. The only meal options came from vending machines.

Now, having learned from storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, U.S. airlines have rewritten their severe weather playbooks. They’ve learned to cancel flights early and keep the public away from airports, even if that means they’ll have a bigger backlog to deal with once conditions improve.

Travelers can still face dayslong delays in getting home, but the advanced cancellations generally mean they get more notice and can wait out the storm at home or a hotel, rather than on a cot at the airport.

Q: Why is it smarter to cancel early?

A: It allows the airlines to tell gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews to stay home — keeping them fresh once they’re needed again.


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And by moving planes to airports outside of the storm’s path, airlines can protect their equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen.

These precautions make good business sense. They also help the airlines comply with government regulations that impose steep fines for leaving passengers stuck on planes for three hours or more. And they reduce the chance of horror-story footage of stranded passengers showing up on the nightly news.

Q: When did airlines change their storm preparations?

A: Things changed almost exactly six years ago. JetBlue was late to cancel flights as a massive snowstorm hammered the East Coast on Valentine’s Day weekend in 2007. Passengers were stranded on planes for hours. When the storm finally cleared, other airlines resumed flights but JetBlue’s operations were still a mess.

Other airlines took note. Severe weather manuals were updated. Reservation systems were programmed to automatically rebook passengers when flights are canceled. And travelers now receive notifications by email, phone or text message.

Q.: What should passengers know?

A.: First off, don’t rush to the airport in hopes of getting a flight before the snow falls. Check with your airline, which will likely cancel your flight before the storm is near your airport.

The good news is that if you miss your connection, the airlines will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. The bad news is that next flight could be a while if you’re traveling to or from a city that is buried under a foot or more of snow.

If you’re unhappy with your rebooked flight pick up the phone and call the airline directly. Or go onto the airline’s website and even consider sending a Tweet.

Q.: How tough is it for the airlines to get operations back to normal?

A.: Once the clouds clear, flights won’t start up immediately.

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