Airlines Struggle to Weather Summer Storms

Many travelers in late June had flights delayed or canceled when thunderstorms hit the Midwest and Northeast.
Many travelers in late June had flights delayed or canceled when thunderstorms hit the Midwest and Northeast. (By Tim Boyle -- Getty Images)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Thunderstorms already have turned the summer into a season of delays, canceled flights and frustrations for passengers, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Airlines have wrestled with getting flights out safely while maintaining customer service.

US Airways had 11,171 flights delayed between June 19 and June 30 because of weather, about 40 percent of its operations. The Tempe, Ariz.-based airline was especially hard hit because it dominates the Northeast. It canceled 287, or about 2 percent, of its flights.

Phil Gee, US Airways spokesman, said the past few weeks "have presented the most challenging operations that we have had since 2004."

Delta Air Lines, another major carrier along the East Coast, had its flights delayed as much as 45 minutes or longer during the peak of the thunderstorms on June 25 and June 26, said Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration is hoping a recently implemented system will help reduce delays and canceled flights. On Thursday, it is scheduled to unveil a system called the Airspace Flow Program that will allow air traffic controllers to more efficiently halt and delay air traffic because of weather. The system uses computers to help controllers better target flights that must be delayed because they will be headed through bad weather, such as thunderstorms. Flights that will not be affected by the weather are allowed to continue to their destination. In most situations, controllers have had to halt or delay a wider range of flights when facing severe weather systems, FAA officials said.

Thunderstorms, not winter snowstorms, are the most challenging for the FAA. Those storms are tougher because they can disrupt travel over a large area between destinations while snowstorms often have their biggest impact at only the affected airports during landings and takeoffs.

During the recent string of thunderstorms, passengers were frustrated to see good weather at their airport and still face delays. Some called relatives or friends at their destination only to learn that the weather was clear there, too. Such delays underscore how thunderstorms along the route cause havoc to the aviation system.

Ellen King, manager of system efficiency for the FAA, says she expects the severe storm season to last for at least another month. "It's still early in the storm season," she said.

When flights are restricted during harsh storms, those with more passengers usually get top departure priority over those with much fewer passengers. Marketing manager Matt Derrick of Arlington and other passengers on a recent US Airways flight sat on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport waiting to take off for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for two hours without any departure information from the cockpit. Derrick and other passengers watched other flights depart while their aircraft remained on the runway.

"I realize there was little the airlines could do, but they should at least understand that people like to be kept in the loop on matters that pertain so critically to their plans," he said.

Travelers whose flights are delayed or canceled because of weather have little recourse because weather is beyond the airline's control. But some airlines -- in the name of customer service -- will offer a hotel room and a meal voucher for connecting passengers who get stranded mid-route.

Airlines have to pay whenever they put one of their passengers on another carrier's flight. But some will do it to maintain customer service. After Judi Swain's Delta flight from Myrtle Beach, S.C., through Atlanta to Norfolk was canceled last month, a Delta agent quickly found a US Airways flight so the Farmingdale, N.J., resident could arrive on time for a wedding.

A word of advice: If your flight is delayed or canceled, instead of waiting until you arrive at the ticket counter, whip out your cellphone and call the airline's toll-free reservation number, your travel agent or your business travel manager to find an alternative flight as quickly as possible. If you wait until you get to the ticket counter, the agent, who might have already dealt with hundreds of angry, frantic travelers, may not be as willing to help you. Worse, other flights could sell out as you wait in line for the next agent.

Southwest's Dulles Flights: Southwest Airlines is expected to fly to four cities from Dulles International Airport when it begins service there in the fall. The airline, which will operate two gates at Dulles's B concourse, will fly to Las Vegas, Tampa, Orlando and Chicago's Midway International Airport.

Fares and the number of flights are expected to be released later this week. Sources close to the airline say Southwest plans to model its Dulles operations after its experience at Denver, where it started with 13 daily flights in January to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Chicago. Then within two months, the airline added other destinations, including Baltimore.

Southwest's arrival at Dulles means greater competition for carriers already operating on similar routes, such as JetBlue Airways, which flies nonstop between Dulles and Las Vegas, and United Airlines, which flies between Dulles -- a hub -- and Orlando and Tampa.

Southwest is also the No. 1 carrier out of Baltimore-Washington International.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

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