A flight to remember…

2009 January 7
by Colin

Thanks to the great state of Illinois, I am granted four weeks leave per calendar year from my job as a research assistant at the University of Illinois (at Urbana-Champaign).  This meant I got to partake in the excitement of taking a couple weeks off to make the flight home to Connecticut to spend Christmas and New Year’s at home like the good old New England boy I am.  Being the foresightful (Firefox doesn’t believe that’s a word) person that I am, I booked my tickets three weeks in advance (the plan was to fly out December 19th and return on January the 6th).  While I had the option of flying out of O’Hare or Midway in Chicago, Indianapolis (KIND) International’s slightly shorter distance as well as ease of actually getting to the airport and then to the terminal outweighed the incremental price increase to fly out of the less popular airport.

As my outbound flight on Friday the 19th grew closer, a growing certainty that Murphy’s Law was attempting to rear it’s head began setting in.  A nor’easter due to strike that weekend was being whispered about by (my fellow) meteorologists up and down the east coast.  Come all day Wednesday and in the morning hours on Thursday before, the National Weather Service had raised various flags.  Winter storm advisories and watches (soon to be warnings) were flying.  Both the GFS and NAM models dumped over an inch of QPF (liquid water) over the northeast; and given thickness profiles and surface temperatures, it seemed certain that the New England region would be covered in a general blanket of snow that ranged anywhere from 6 inches to a foot (and maybe plus in some localized areas).

Following my final exam of the semester on Thursday morning, I went back to my office to find that Northwest Airlines was issuing what they call “weather waivers” for all individuals on flights to or from the northeast (states of CT, RI, MA, VT, NH, ME, NY, and PA) for Friday-Sunday.  (I had secretly been hoping these would be available all along, which led to constant F5 hits in Firefox the night before)  Taking advantage of this, I called NWA’s travel hotline, managed to get a representative (a fairly amicable fellow named Doug), and subsequently (and surprising painlessly) switched my flight from Friday at 1:35 PM, to Saturday at the same time.  (Editorial:  Weather waivers are amazing.  Take advantage of them.)

On Saturday, I arrived at the airport’s new Cook Terminal about an hour and a half before boarding.  Thanks to the sheer enormity of the economy lot (there used to be about ten different parking tiers, now there are three), it took about 20-30 minutes to hop on a shuttle and arrive at the building itself.  Check in was only mildly painless, dealing with the usual annoyances of using a computer to deal with check in, but then having to awkwardly stand in the way as I waited for my baggage to be checked.  The earliest foreboding of future complications manifested itself when my flight was showed as departing at 4:34 PM (while still managing to travel back in time for a 3:00 PM arrival at Bradley due to a computer glitch– an error that absolutely confounded the young Asian woman (clearly not a Cornell CS major) next to me).

At this point, I relegated myself to hanging around the airport’s new rotunda, complete with no less than six slightly-above-quality eateries before even passing through security.  After a satisfying (and drawn-out) bacon burger (as well as a pint or two of Newcastle) at the “Indy 500 Grill,” I sauntered over to the windows on the southwest side of the terminal to attempt to get a look at the takeoff/landing operations at the airport.  This was not possible however, as since my arrival, the flight tower had switched the direction of takeoffs and landings in accordance with the surface wind direction.  On my way past, I managed to snag a look at one of the monitors and noticed my flight had been delayed until 6:30 PM.  Not good.  I spent some time thumbing through papers my adviser had provided me with as what essentially amounted to “summer reading:  winter break style.”  7:20 PM popped up on the screen.  Alright, now we have a bit of a problem.  At some point or another, I made my way downstairs to see if any Northwest representatives at the check-in counter could enlighten me as to exactly what was going on.  After all, the weather was still fine where I was, and perfectly fine in Hartford (though would be trending to not so fine overnight).  Luckily, I bumped into a rather official looking gentleman, who was able to look up the status of my flight.  Apparently, the CRJ (that’s fancy airplane speak for “Canadair Regional Jet”– a regional airliner with a (unrelated to this entry) strikingly poor in-flight deicing system given that it was developed north of 45 degrees latitude) that I was supposed to fly on was grounded in Minneapolis due to the blizzard conditions there, and that they were going to put us on another CRJ-200 that was coming in from Boston on the late flight (ironically, the flight I would probably take back on my way from Boston if I didn’t always end up on US Airways).  He did confirm that “the bird was in the air” however, which pleased me greatly, and I finally (five hours later than I originally planned), made my way through a very empty security line.

I sat down at the gate and waited patiently for my flight to arrive, all the while trying to make arrangements for pickup at Bradley later that night.  Soon, the plane pulled up to the gate, and the pilots and passengers disembarked.  I put my phone down and began thumbing through a Scientific American that I had picked up at one of the little shops in the terminal and noticed that a couple employees were making there way down the runway.  Thinking nothing of this, I went back to my reading, only to be jerked up about 15 minutes later by a call over the speaker that we were now pushed back to 8:53 PM.  At this point, I’m beyond confused, and attempt to make my way over to the counter to confirm the (seemingly) grim news (I also hadn’t heard the exact time, and the computer monitor’s were not updating).  No sooner than I walk over do I get to the desk and the old lady behind it looks at me with that look.  Dammit.  “Flight 2171 to Bradley is canceled.”  Let the record show, that I’m pretty agitated, but other passengers who have now been in the terminal for 36 hours straight (they lack my amazing foresight in switching flights– that or they simply weren’t able to) are absolutely irate.  Luckily, thanks to my wandering over to the counter because of my lack of full attentiveness to whatever Northwest decreed over the loudspeaker, I am at the front of the line and am the 2nd person to attempt to get rebooked for the next day.  The computer automatically scheduled me on a 3 leg flight– first to Detroit (NWA’s hub), then to Houston (seriously?), then to Bradley at around 11 PM.  This was unacceptable, not only because brief jaunt into the land of cowboys and Matt Schaub, but also because impending weather indicates the odds of me making it to Bradley the next evening are about the same as Sarah Palin winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee (while this analogy is admittedly extremely poor, be thankful I didn’t associate Palin to Vick via the transitive property of pitbullness).

I managed to book a 7 AM flight to Logan the next morning, and then book a secondary flight at 9 PM to La Guardia (also of note, they had no problem booking me on TWO flights into major cities for the next day.  What does this tell you about the number of people they are actually selling tickets to?).  The best part about the whole experience was Northwest’s generous package as compensation.  By generous, I mean I received $25 off my next NWA flight.  That’s right– for stranding me and 70 other passengers in Indianapolis while the weather outside was far from frightful, we all received 1.6532% off our next flight.  What is this, 19-fucking-72?  Flights aren’t $39 anymore.  With that ordeal now out of the way, I spent the rest of the evening back in the rotunda, since the portion of the terminal with the gates closed at midnight.  Two cold slices of pizza later, I tried to get a few hours of sleep on two ottomans I had slung together from the bar.  I might have topped 2 hours, of which no more than 30 minutes was consecutive.  Crying children and old Asian men practicing their golf swings ruled the evening.  Next time, I’m bringing a tent.  At 4:30 AM, I managed to make it down to check-in (they wouldn’t hold my checked baggage overnight), only to find myself 30th in line and the counter not opening until 5.  Apparently a 737 into LAX was canceled the evening before as well– and I have to wonder if people who showed up at 5 (and were met with a line out the terminal doors) were able to get on the next flight to LA; which left around 6:50.  The most critical portion of this venture was finding out exactly why we couldn’t leave the night before (the words “canceled – crew” showed up on my boarding pass which contained my original, and now rebooked, flight information).  You see, Northwest Airlines ran out of pilots.  Yes, of the two things you need to fly, they had trouble supplying me with both.  The pilots were originally there, but the plane was not– then they breached their workable hours, so the plane arrived, but no pilots.  Fantastic Northwest, kudos to you.

Luckily, security was a breeze, even in my half-awake stupor, and we actually got on the plane this time.  After a deicing period that took much longer than it probably should have, we took off through the dark in Indianapolis and hurtled towards Boston.  I remember putting on my headphones, but not much after that, the next thing I knew was that our pilot was instructing everyone to buckle up for what would likely be a bumpy landing.  By this time, Boston was now being pounded with coastal storm #2, and of course, I’m stuck in the middle of it.  However, the landing was not as problematic as it could have been, and aside from the regular roller coaster ride through the sky, we managed to touch down on the runway (covered in a few inches of snow), and thanks to a little help from the reverse thrusters (which I’ve only heard used once on this particular type of plane– that being on my no-flaps emergency landing in Indianapolis in early November) managed to stop before careening anywhere that could have presented a problem (unlike COA1404, which had slid off the runway in Denver the night before– we all got to watch the news at the airport bar).  Delicous irony continued to ooze as we arrived at the gate and found that Logan had closed the airport to departures and had enacted a ground control program for other flights destined to KBOS around the country.

As an epilogue, I made it home via bus on Monday, arriving exactly 74 hours after I was supposed to.  The flight I had been rescheduled on to La Guardia was delayed by four hours, and I would have arrived around 3 AM in New York had I ended up not being able to go to Boston.  Like I accurately predicted, the Houston-Bradley leg of my computer-rebooked flight was cancelled, which would have caused me to spend the evening in Texas, trying to figure out which “Drill, Baby, Drill!” shirt best on me.

While sitting in the terminal and not playing with my iPhone, I was allowed to think about all the incompetance that had followed me around that weekend.  Not so much the weather, because when that comes, you can’t stop it.  But Saturday’s cancellation was a bungling of epic proportions; both from the fleet management (see below) and the crew available on staff aspects.  I can now say for confidence that if some random stranger had walked up to me in that terminal and said, “how would you fix the airlines?” I would have responded with, “sit down, buddy, and I’ll tell you a story…”

1.)  Incorporate more complex weather forecasting into fleet distribution and operations models. The issue that bothered me the most by far– almost all of this past week’s flight issues dealt with weather in some form or another.  Long de-icing lines, icy runways, IFR/LIFR conditions; all of which contributed to a signficant number of airport delays and cancellations.  While there is no question that immediate weather concerns affected many of the flights (for example, flights scheduled for Friday night from KORD to KBOS had to deal with weather issues at the immediate present at not one, but both airports), the issues and backlogs on the relatively quiet Saturday and Mondays can partially be allocated to poor planning on fleet distribution by the major airlines.  If Pinnacle Airlines (a regional airline which flies under the Northwest banner) flies five flights a day with a certain CRJ-200, then flying your last flight during the day prior into a region where you are likely to be grounded the following morning doesn’t seem like prudent practice.  Yet this happened with a significant portion of Northwest’s fleet the Saturday I spent in Indianapolis.  Many passengers were told that flights were delayed not due to weather, but because of a lack of planes.  This is somewhat true– the weather was not causing a problem at neither the departure airport nor the arrival airport.  However, the reason for the lack of planes was the strong low pressure system causing blizzard conditions over the Midwest.  Flights that had flown their last flight Friday into Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Grand Forks, Bismarck, and other airports that are serviced by many regional jets were now grounded.  This, coupled with the the cost-cutting pinches airlines have enacted on fleets caused a significant ripple affect across the country that canceled hundreds of flights that would have been perfectly acceptable to fly in any other scenario.

2.)  Use new codeshares across airlines to decrease the number flights into/out of regional airports while maintaining current passenger volume. Does Ithaca-Tompkins need three or four different airlines monopolizing the services of half-full CRJ and Saab regional planes with up to ten in/out flights on a daily basis– especially given the proximity of Syracuse and Rochester?  In this instance, a codeshare system set up among all major airlines would be an effecient way of getting passengers in/out of the area, while cutting back on the number of flights, and freeing up regional airliners to be used on other regional routes around the country.  If this creates a plethora of regional aircraft, then skim off the top and leave the excess in hangers to be used as backup in case of mechanical malfunction, or weather situations such as this past week.  Even with the extra hanger maintainence needed for the “backup” planes, operating costs would decrease due to decreased number of flights which also lessens fuel.  This also frees up pilot hours to fly more profitable routes as well as other types of jet liners that can carry the burden of air passengers more efficiently from major hub airports.  This is in no way a condemnation of the regional jet service boom of the late 1980′s and 1990′s; however, the hub and spoke system of air transport needs to be modified.  Hubs need to be more evenly distributed around the country.  Flying a regional jet from Milwaukee to Louisville, KY might not be profitable, however, having an airline utilize a connecting flight through La Guardia doesn’t endear the efficiency of air travel to the average consumer.  “Regional hubs” need to allow for painless connections, with short time-scales, but correctly managed traffic flow.

Admittedly there are some likely some gross oversights in the theories posted above.  I’ll admit, I’m not in charge of a major airline; I’m just smarter than those who are.

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