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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How can bad weather ruin your flight? Let us count the ways.

Even when it’s clear and sunny at your departure airport, bad weather in another part of the country can wreak havoc

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

On the clearest day, it can still happen to you: the dreaded alert that says your flight is delayed due to … weather?

Wait, what? How? Why?

“It’s really frustrating when you go to the airport, and it’s beautiful there, but your plane’s coming from some place where it’s not so great,” said Martin Dresner, a professor at the University of Maryland’s R.H. Smith School of Business who studies air transport policy.

In that case, you can blame storms wherever the plane is coming from, or even in between the two cities, which could force a plane to reroute around the system and spend more time in the air.

The no-cloud-in-sight delay is just one maddening example of how bad weather — especially unpredictable, powerful summer storms — can wreak havoc on your travel plans. One day of bad weather can trigger a domino effect that takes days to resolve. It’s a familiar story this summer, exacerbated by high demand and inadequate staffing as airlines recover from the pandemic.

More than 4,000 flights canceled since Thursday amid strong storms

On Wednesday, a day when the Federal Aviation Administration warned of storm activity from the D.C. area to Fort Worth, more than 1,200 U.S. flights were canceled and more than 7,400 delayed. Between Aug. 4 until Monday, travelers dealt with 4,000 canceled flights and thousands more delayed.

Last weekend and during earlier major disruptions in late May and mid-June, airlines pointed at weather as a factor. Summer storms typically develop in the afternoon, making flights later in the day more vulnerable to disruption than those early in the morning.

Even in normal times, experts say, air travel is a carefully choreographed dance.

“In order to maximize utilization of planes … essentially what airlines do is create these fairly tight schedules,” said Lavanya Marla, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies air travel disruption. Planes and crew might be expected at multiple airports in a day, and passengers might have complicated itineraries that don’t leave much wiggle room.

“There’s a sequence in which the plan happens,” Marla said.

Now throw a weather wrench in the mix.

Welcome to summer travel. It's hell.

If there are storms with lightning in the vicinity of the airport, ramp operations have to stop in order to protect outdoor workers who might be vulnerable to lightning strikes, said Robert W. Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant. He said airlines also don’t want planes to take off into a line of thunderstorms over concerns about turbulence.

In an explanation of summer travel issues from 2019, Delta Air Lines said the FAA might also issue delays or stops to “temporarily halt movement in and out of … airports when disruptive weather moves in.” That would keep new flights from landing or planes from departing.

Delta said pilots might also be directed to route around intense storm systems, which might extend high into the atmosphere, since they can’t safely fly over them. That can make a flight last longer, contributing to delays.

Winter storms are no picnic either, with less lightning but more de-icing and anti-icing activity.

Kathleen Giblin, a spokeswoman for United Airlines who also has worked in operations, said the issues can mount at the airport experiencing the bad weather.

“If planes can’t get off of the gate, other planes can’t get into the gate,” she said. So even if someone’s flight is supposed to be next, “your plane can’t get into that gate because the one before it can’t get off, because the ramp crew can’t get out there and move it.”

Your canceled-flight emergency kit

If bad weather affects flights at an airport that isn’t one of an airline’s bases, they might not have a spare plane or extra crew to swap in to get passengers on their way. That can lead to a domino effect of multiple flights being delayed or canceled.

As all of these situations unfold, crews are running out of time to be on duty for the day under their contracts or FAA requirements — even if their flights haven’t taken off.

Mann said airlines have to find crew to take those new assignments, but if they can’t find eligible volunteers, that might force cancellations, too.

Dresner, chair of the Air Transport Research Society, said it can take a few days to reposition planes and crew back to where they’re supposed to be in cases of serious disruption. And then there are the desperate travelers to consider.

“Because the airlines are operating at fairly close to capacity, you have to fit in the passengers somewhere,” he said. “It’s difficult to reschedule the passengers if you don’t have available seats.”