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Driving You Crazy: How do airlines select which flights to cancel before bad weather events?

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Posted at 4:33 AM, May 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-24 08:34:06-04

Dean from Lakewood writes, “What’s driving you crazy? I recently got an alert that said 100 flights have been canceled at DIA in anticipation of bad weather. I am really curious about how this works at the airlines. What is the logic?  How do they select what flights to cancel, etc.?”

There are a dozen or more factors considered when an airline is faced with having to cancel flights due to weather, and each airline handles bad weather events a touch differently.

I reached out to nine of the major airlines flying to and from Denver International Airport. Here's what they had to say.

Southwest Airlines:
“In instances where Southwest must reduce flights due to operational disruptions (such as weather, ATC management programs, airport closures, etc.), our network controllers utilize a proprietary computer program that optimizes the schedule and cancellation decisions by taking into account factors such as the number of other itinerary options available for customers (for instance: there might be other multiple nonstop flights that same day or one-stop options that will deliver customers to their destinations), crew availability, aircraft availability, anticipated timing/duration of the event and/or weather forecasts for the affected area(s)," said Brian from the Southwest Airlines public relations team. "The goal is always to try and preserve efficient/timely alternatives to limit the disruption to customers, employees and aircraft flow."

"When cancellations are necessary, Southwest strives to implement schedule adjustments with as much advance notice as possible for customers. Often, customers are automatically placed onto alternate itineraries, however, individuals can always reach out to Southwest for additional options if the new itinerary doesn’t meet their travel needs. Finally, we often post a “Travel Advisory” on Southwest.com for certain airports when we know that certain areas are being affected by significant operational disruptions (such as a winter storm, etc.). As part of that travel advisory, customers are allowed to self-serve/rebook their flights on our website for travel to/from the affected airports for different dates.”

United Airlines:
“It does come down to a variety of factors, and it’s not always one thing or the other," said Russell Carlton, corporate communications manager with United Airlines. "Time of day, available resources, weather and down the line impacts are some of the main ingredients that are in play. United has a Network Operations Center (NOC) based at Willis Tower in Chicago and this is the control center of our airline. It is staffed 24/7, 365. Within the NOC, there are teams of employees with dedicated tasks — some may monitor weather, others monitoring crew resources, other are in charge of pilot scheduling and many more functions.

"There is a (large) human element, and there is also impressive technology at play — it is a combination of both. We also have Station Operations Centers (based at the airport) and they are sort of the quarterbacks of the operation on the ground here.”

MORE: Read more traffic issues driving people crazy

Allegiant Air:
“When weather is a cause for concern, we may cancel a flight, not a route," said Rachel Christiansen, corporate communications with Allegiant Air. "Unfortunately, factors such as weather are outside of our control. The standards of weather cancellations are set by a variety of regulatory entities, such as the FAA, Air Traffic Control and even individual airports. These standards are set with safety in mind as the top priority. Our operations team is monitoring conditions on the entire flight path, so inclement weather on any part of that may impact a flight status.

"We don’t take decisions to cancel flights lightly, but when we have to, we notify customers as soon as possible through a variety of channels. When flights are canceled, we do our best to reaccommodate passengers to other flights. In instances where that is not possible, we issue credit or refunds to those passengers.”

Delta Air Lines:
“The bottom line when it comes to which flights get canceled is we want to impact the least amount of people for the least amount of time. We understand that any delay in travel plans is not good for our customers, and we try to take that into consideration," said Catherine Morrow with Delta Air Lines media relations. "Flights aren’t canceled by a computer; it’s done in our operations and customer center. They are conductors, if you will, of all the of all the flight times. If the cancellation is weather related, we have a staff meteorologist who will work with the people in the operations and customer center and decide which flights to cancel based on what will affect the least number of people.

"With staffing delays, we basically do the same thing. We look at trying to impact the least number of people. One consideration is they will look at individual flights and ask if this flight has a lot of people connecting. Let’s say they’re going to Atlanta but connecting elsewhere. If they’re connecting to a place that only has one flight a day, that would impact them more then someone whose destination is Atlanta. So, they do look at individual flights and see what that impact will be.

"When your flight does get canceled there’s a computer system that will rebook you automatically on the next available option. If that next available option doesn’t work for you then you can go on the app or can call Delta reservations and get that switched around.”

Avelo Airlines:
“What’s really important to us is to get out front of it so that it doesn’t continue to roll into the day after day after day scenario," said Andrew Levy, CEO of Avelo Airlines that flies out of Northern Colorado Regional Airport. "It’s better to inconvenience a smaller number of people when we have to. We hate doing that, but if we have to make a choice, we’d rather inconvenience fewer people and limit the damage so that we can stay on schedule so that the vast majority of our customers get to where they need to go on time.

"Everybody has some bad days. Every customer has experienced it. Sometimes your number is up and it’s just your turn to have an inconvenient travel experience, which is obviously something nobody wants. There’s a lot of variables we can’t control with the weather probably the single biggest one out there.”

You can listen to my entire interview with Levy on my Driving You Crazy Podcast.

I also reached out to American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue. None of those airlines got back to me, even after multiple requests for comment.

Aviation analyst Jay Ratliff also talked to me about this on my Driving You Crazy podcast.

“There’s probably 16 to 18 different things we will look at that’s going to determine which flights we’re going to cancel and which ones were not. There is logic behind the madness as they’re going around canceling some of these various flights, and it is thought out," he said.

"On bad weather events, the airlines might cut the daily flights in half because we know that is within our capability and we can operate on that schedule. The airlines flight control departments also look at if it is too risky to operate in that environment. In other words, are we worried about any sort of injury to our employees, or are we worried about the ground equipment that might be smacking into one of these airplanes, and is it going to take these valuable silver revenue tubes out of service?

"Also, if a crew gets in the plane but is limited on time — in other words, there’s only so many hours in the course of a month or even in a day that pilots and flight attendants can work. If you send them into a situation where we could be looking at an extensive delay, here’s what can happen. They go in, we board the plane, we push back, we got to wait an hour and 10 minutes to take off. Well, now that hour and 10 minutes becomes two hours and 10 minutes, and at three hours, we have to take everybody back to the gate to give them the opportunity, by law, to get off the plane. But at the two and a half hour mark, the pilots no longer can fly because the duration of a flight is going to push them past the maximum flight time they can have that day — flight canceled. So, you don’t want to send some of your limited flight time crews into that situation because you are just begging for trouble.

"We also keep in mind which flights have been canceled between two markets and if there’s a certain market that has been hammered with cancellations. They will be the last ones we’ll touch because we don’t want to add onto the misery.”

Ratliff also told me he thinks we are going to see a surge of passenger demand this summer that’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and the airlines are not ready for what’s about to happen. He said travelers are going to have to be patient and also plan on higher fares because of that high demand, as well as the high price of oil.

Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.