One three-hour airline delay this summer … and the industry survived

The latest data from the Department of Transportation suggests that airlines are figuring out how to survive in a world of on-the-ground delays that can last no more than three hours. The summer travel season had only one delay that was affected by the rule. This is a 98.5 percent decline from the summer of 2009.

The airline industry mobilized, when faced with the prospect of the three-hour rule, to counter that there would be a substantial increase in canceled flights, as the threat of hefty fines would cause them to pull the plug. Yet, this hasn’t really happened either. Cancellation rates for the spring and summer were:

  • May: 1.24 percent
  • June: 1.5 percent
  • July: 1.43 percent
  • August: 1 percent

In fairness, May, June and July had cancellation rates higher this year than last, but August held steady, suggesting that it is possible to comply with the three-hour delay rule without sending cancellation rates sky-high.

According to MSNBC:

That’s an acceptable tradeoff, says DOT. “Although the rule has been in effect only a short time, we’ve seen no tangible increase in flight cancellations,” said spokeswoman Olivia Alair, “which means airlines are taking action to prevent delays without canceling flights, as some industry critics claimed they would.”

So, what were the dire consequences forecasted by the airline sector?

Those critics would no doubt include airline consultants Darryl Jenkins and Josh Marks, who published a report in July stating that the new rule would lead to an additional 5,200 cancellations per year (both directly and indirectly), at a cost to the public welfare of $3.5 to $3.9 billion over the next 20 years.

Jenkins and Marks stand by their projections, creating a situation in which the same data is leading to two perspectives. But, one thing is clear: in terms of percentage, flight cancellations have stayed consistently under the 15-year average for four consecutive months.

[photo by nafmo via Flickr]

Flight delays and making the best of it (Or, Zen and the Art of Airplane Maintenance)

May 1; Leesburg, Virginia — Sometimes you don’t have to travel far to have an adventure: I re-learned this lesson yesterday in the usually predictable confines of Dulles International Airport just outside Washington, DC.

I’d been in DC for five fabulously stimulating days and was scheduled to fly home to San Francisco on a 5:35 pm United flight. I arrived at Dulles around 3:00 and settled in for a sandwich and some airport email and reading time. My plane — a Boeing 777 usually reserved for international flights, which had flown in from Geneva earlier that day — was listed as on time. The afternoon sailed smoothly by until 4:45, when a gate agent announced that the flight was going to be delayed for mechanical reasons. She said they would make an updated announcement at 5:30.

By 5:25 the boarding area resembled a refugee scene: A long queue of people waited to confront two beleaguered ticket agents, and around them a ragged semicircle of travelers brandished their cellphones, complaining to colleagues, lamenting to loved ones, exasperatedly seeking alternative flights.

Then one of the ticket agents made an announcement that only about half the people could hear. “Can anyone fly to San Jose instead?” At once everyone who did hear assaulted the counter and those who didn’t began to call out, “What did she say? What did she say?” Afraid of missing something, they rushed the counter too. It was a stampede, with people waving their tickets in the air, elbowing their way forward, demanding their rights.After a few frantic minutes, five fortunate passengers sprinted across the corridor, clutching precious new boarding passes, and raced onto a Denver-bound plane just as its doors shut. The rest of us looked worriedly at each other. Casablanca, I thought.

I overheard a man in a business suit say something authoritatively to a young couple and followed him to the wine bar to ask what he’d found out. “There’s no way that plane is going to fly,” he said. “They’re trying to find another plane that could be flown here, but then they have to find a flight crew as well. They said they won’t know for three or four hours if they’ll be able to get a plane here tonight or not. So basically we just need to sit tight until they know what the situation is.”

Fifteen minutes later I Skyped to my wife: “The agent just came on and said that they’re looking for another plane that can come here and take us to SFO but they’re having problems, because it’s a larger kind of plane that usually just flies internationally, so they’re having trouble finding one that’s available…. I have a feeling we’re going to end up spending the night here….”

About ten minutes later the gate agent came back on the intercom and said that the flight was cancelled and that we should all proceed to the United service counter where we would be given a voucher for a hotel and dinner and a ticket for a flight to SFO the following day.

Like wildebeest we galumphed down the corridor toward the service counter, where two more harried agents waited. After standing in line for an hour and 20 minutes, I was handed a voucher for a hotel, a dinner voucher for the grand sum of $15 (woohoo!), and a boarding pass for the 4:08 pm flight to SFO.

“What about my check-in bag?” I asked.

“You’ll pick that up at the United baggage area when you arrive in SFO tomorrow,” the agent said brightly.

“And where am I staying?”

“The Lansdowne Resort, you’ll really like it,” she said.

Resort? I had been expecting an airport Hyatt or Hilton. The Lansdowne Resort sounded, well, vaguely thrilling.

“Go to transportation pick-up area 2H, and a shuttle from the resort will pick you up.”

I left the counter and realized that I had no idea what lay ahead. I was going to spend the night at a place called Lansdowne Resort, a place I was certain I would never otherwise have experienced in my life. I didn’t have to worry about my bag; all I had in the world was the laptop-bearing backpack that I’d kept as carry-on. A voucher was burning a $15 hole in my pocket. I felt lighter and lighter with each step. I was on an adventure!

That’s what happens when our well-laid plans go astray. One moment the day is all organized and itineraried; we’ve already lived it in our minds, we’re already arriving in San Francisco. And then the universe sends a little gift – your flight is cancelled; there’s a rupture in the fabric of certainty and expectation. The itinerary is out the window. Suddenly an alternative stream of possibilities, sunlit, floods into the scene.

Or at least, that’s the way I chose to take it….

As I write these words, it’s a sun-washed morning in northwest Virginia, and I’m swaddled in terrycloth splendor in my very comfortable room at the Lansdowne Resort. Last night I arrived at this spacious retreat set among green rolling hills and white golf carts and had a delicious dinner of grilled salmon and Sauvignon blanc at the estimable On the Potomac restaurant. The tab was considerably more than my allotted $15, but it was worth it.

After dinner I went for a walk under the stars. The night was beautiful, warm enough that I was comfortable in just a sport coat, quiet, the air almost caressing. A convivial group was gathered around a terrace fire pit, drinking and laughing. As I walked farther, I came upon an area of what looked to be expansive and expensive homes, no doubt following the contours of the resort’s lush fairways.

Of course, there were challenges to overcome. First there was the toothbrush issue. I channeled my inner Bear Grylls and briefly considered foraging for a twig and a few sprigs of mint among the resort’s manicured grounds — but as it turned out, I foraged in my bathroom and found, nestled among the stalks of Shampoo, Conditioner, and Body Lotion, a blue extract called Mouthwash, which served as the perfect toothbrush-in-a-pinch.

Then there was the clothing conundrum. I didn’t have a change of garb, but luckily, I discovered a stream in that same bathroom, peeled off my sweaty clothes and plunged them into the flowing water, then washed them in the sap of the Bath Gel plant. Finally, after laying them out to dry nearby, I crept up to the closet, carefully pried it open, and spied a woolly white Lansdowne-Crested Bathrobe. With a single leap, I wrested it from its perch and subdued it. That would serve as cover for the night.

This morning my hair looks like it’s been dancing to the beat of savage drums and my beard recalls Tom Hanks in Castaway, but this just adds a little more gritty glamour to the scene. I can hear myself at a future cocktail party: Yes, my flight was canceled at Dulles and suddenly I was thrown back on my own resources; I had to use all my wits to survive….

The truth is: I feel marvelously light. I don’t have to make any decision about what clothes to wear; I don’t have any choice. I don’t have to lug my check-in bag around; I’m as buoyant as the pack on my back. The sun is shining, the golf carts are revving up, the golfers are cleat-clattering on their way to the course, and the birds are tweeting the old-fashioned way from fulsome green trees. The day stretches infinitely, invitingly ahead.

This morning I’ve re-realized a truth that I once lived by: Traveling without baggage – of both the literal and the figurative kind – is wondrously lightening and liberating.

This morning I’ve re-realized a truth that I once lived by, and that too much business and too little adventure has obscured in the past year: Traveling without baggage – of both the literal and the figurative kind — is wondrously lightening and liberating. The metaphor has woken me up like the Virginia sun: light pack, light feet, light soul. And now, for half a day, I’m soaring, suspended, with nothing to do, nowhere to be, adrift on the winds of possibility.

Before long I’ll take a shower, exchange terrycloth for Oxford cloth and corduroy, wander around the grounds a bit, plug in my laptop and do the work I would have done if I were at home – some reading, some writing. But I’ll get to do it among the rolling green hills and gracious estates of this corner of Virginia I would never otherwise have known existed. One more piece in my picture-puzzle of the world will have been serendipitously filled in.

Sometimes we need these little ruptures to refresh us, to renew our sense of wonder and wander. In the end, a flight cancellation for mechanical reasons can be a ticket from the universe – a Zen koan that retools our inner engine: How do you fly when there is no plane?

[Image credits: JoshuaDavisPhotography.com; SalimFadhley; Jurvetson]

Crazy dust storm covers Sydney in red haze

Residents and tourists in Sydney, Australia, might be feeling as though they been transported to Mars, and in fact, a glance around at the city covered in red dust against a red-orange sky does bring to mind images of what a colony on the red planet would look like. Despite its other-worldly appearance, the haze that converged on Sydney yesterday is earth-bound, composed of red dust from the Outback.

Australia has been suffering one of the worst periods of drought since the 1940’s and an eight-year dry spell and record high temperatures have combined to create the country’s worst dust storms in 70 years. The storms normally only affect the interior of the country, but this time, they’ve covered Sydney as well, all but shutting down the airport and halting the service of passenger ferries for several hours.

According to The Age, air quality in Sydney was reported as 40 times worse than the level regarded as “poor” and 20 times the “hazardous” level. People are being advised not to go outside, especially if they have respiratory problems, and to take care when driving in the poor visibility. Officials said they had received over 250 calls from people reporting breathing problems as a result of the thousands of tons of dust in the air.

The storms were visible on radar and their effects were felt as far away as New Zealand, 1400 miles away.

For more amazing images of the dust storm, click here.

Congress to end long flight delays

The business travel community is siding with Congress on a new law that would address flight delays on the tarmac. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents the travel departments of 300 companies, is announcing today that it supports a new law that would give passengers some elbow room when a plane’s stuck on the ground.

If a plane is delayed for three hours or more on the tarmac, according to the bill, airlines would have to let the passengers get off the planes. This would provide welcome relief in among the gloomiest of travel situations. And, it could work to the airlines’ favor – though they wouldn’t admit it – as it would prevent negative public relations situations due to poor judgment. There have been enough delays to warrant at least the introduction of a bill, so there’s obviously a problem.

The Business Travel Coalition made the decision after surveying 649 corporate travel departments, travel agents and business travelers. More than 90 percent of the corporate travel departments and approximately 80 percent of travel agents and business travelers support the proposed rule. The National Business Traveler Association and American Society of Travel Agents have both come out in favor of the bill.

Since January 2007, USA Today reports that in excess of 200,000 passengers have been stranded on more than 3,000 planes for at least three hours after pushing back from or while waiting to approach a gate. There were 278 flights in this situation in June 2009 alone. While this is still a small portion of total passenger traffic, 200,000 people is a statistic that’s hard to ignore.

The issue of long tarmac delays was triggered recently by a Continental Express fight that was stuck on the ground in Rochester, Minnesota. The Senate has approved a version of the bill with the three-hour rule, while the House of Representatives has passed a less specific version, requiring that airlines submit a plan to the Department of Transportation for letting passengers off in the case of a long delay.

The Air Transportation Association is against the bill, though it calls long delays “unacceptable” (not exactly a hard position to take). The vice president of the ATA, David Castelveter, claims that airlines have contingency plans to deal with these situations and can handle the situations themselves.

According to USA Today, he says, “We continue to believe that a hard-and-fast mandatory rule for deplaning passengers will have substantial unintended consequences, leading to even more inconvenience for passengers and, ultimately, more flight cancellations.” He also explains that airlines have spent more money and invested in new technology to improve the service they provide.

Of course, we see how well that’s worked over the past three years for enough people to comprise a small city. I’m not a big fan of Congressional involvement, but it’s clear the airlines can’t handle this one on their own: they’ve proved it too often.

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March a good month for on-time arrivals

We all love to hate the airlines, and on-time arrivals are among our largest gripes. There’s nothing worse (well, within reason) than seeing the toe-tapping that comes with the disgruntled looks of people waiting to pick you up … it’s not like they had to spend endless hours on the runway or circling LaGuardia. Well, in March, they weren’t as bad.

The 19 largest airlines in the country reported an improved rate of on-time flights compared to March 2008, according to some data from the Feds. Well, the bar wasn’t set very high. On-time results for March 2008 were 71.6 percent, according to the Department of Transportation‘s Bureau of Transportation Statistics and reached 78.4 percent this year. Before you get too excited, it’s down from 82.6 percent in February.

So, what does all this mean? Airlines were late almost a quarter of the time, and that includes the padding applied to routes. Aviation analyst Michael Boyd says that a flight from Binghamton, NY to New York City is scheduled for an hour and 15 minutes – not the 45 minutes it takes.

Aviation system delays were responsible for 7.3 percent of delays, with late arrivals from other planes kicking in another 6.5 percent. Factors within airlines’ control were responsible for almost 5 percent delays.

Extreme weather? A mere 0.62 percent.