How Are Airlines Coping With Northeast Snowstorm?

The Northeast snowstorm has created a nightmare for travelers, with numerous flights canceled at New York City's three main airports. For more, NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Matthew Wald, an aviation reporter for The New York Times.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Of course, there are many, many people who did not have staying at home in mind. They were planning to get on a plane. But U.S. carriers canceled thousands of flights today. And some like US Airways and Delta cut hundreds of flights yesterday in advance of the bad weather.

Matthew Wald covers aviation safety for The New York Times, and he joins us me now. Hi, Matthew.

Mr. MATTHEW WALD (Reporter, The New York Times): Audie, how are you?

CORNISH: So how have the airlines generally performed with this blizzard?

Mr. WALD: Well, they're doing brilliantly. There are no delays, only cancelations.

CORNISH: Only cancelations. I mean, is it me, or did it seem like they were proactively canceling flights before a snowflake hit the ground?

Mr. WALD: They had a strategy which they called pre-cancelation. You might call it drop-dead. And the theory is, yeah, New York is okay today, but if we fly in there, it's going to snow overnight. We won't get out again. We just won't go.

So they kept the airplanes in other locations around the country, and they've kept them in service around the country. But if you were trying to get in and out of New York and Boston, you are out of luck.

CORNISH: So what's the advantage for them with customers?

Mr. WALD: The advantage is suppose you have a plane that was supposed to go from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Orlando, if they flown into New York, they could not have gotten back to Charlotte and then they couldn't gotten from Charlotte to Orlando. This way, at least, they can fly back and forth between Charlotte and Orlando. It inconveniences a different set of passengers. They're making a quick calculation, okay, our biggest market is unusable, how can we get the most people on this plane and put this plane to the best use given this weather?

CORNISH: So is it something we're going to see more of?

Mr. WALD: It is. The airlines are basically in it for the money. I wouldn't say they want to make profits. They want to lose less. That's the best you can hope for in the airline business. And they think they can get that done by avoiding something that's likely to be a sandpit for them. They just don't go.

CORNISH: Now, how have airports and airlines operationally gotten better dealing with big snowstorms?

Mr. WALD: The usual pattern in a snowstorm is not that the airport closes. It's that instead of having two runways, you've only got one. It's that you've got snow coming down covering the airplanes on the ground. You've got to deice them before you can take off. They've gotten somewhat better at deicing, and they've gotten pacing better.

One of the frustrating things about flying out of Newark or Kennedy is you can be there while it's snowing. They take the plane in to deice it, then line up for takeoff and by the time they're ready to takeoff, the plane has ice on the wings again. They've gotten a little bit better at the mechanics of that.

CORNISH: So, Matthew, of course, we have to ask about the money, right? I mean, how much of a hit is this economically for the airlines? Because this blizzard came right at the tail of Christmas travels, people returning from the holidays.

Mr. WALD: It's busy and worse than that airlines - airplanes routinely are so full now that if you have one day or a day and a half's worth of passengers that you didn't get out, it's going to take you many, many days to get them out because the normal pattern on the subsequent days is your planes are almost full.

It used to be if you didn't carry them today, well, you'll carry tomorrow in a seat that would have gone empty otherwise. Now, that seat is full already. So in some ways, these losses are bigger than they used to be, but the airlines still prefer to fly their planes with as little spare capacity as possible.

CORNISH: And in the time we have left, any sense that the airlines are learning some lessons from these storms? It seems like each year there's a big blizzard that knocks things out.

Mr. WALD: I think they're probably pretty happy with the way they played it this time. Nature is unpredictable. Snowstorms are a little easier to deal with than, say, big thunderstorms because snowstorms move slowly. You can see them coming. You can make plans. But there's less give in the system than there was in earlier years. So if you're a passenger, bring a good book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: That's Matthew Wald. He covers aviation safety for The New York Times. Matthew, thanks so much.

Mr. WALD: Thanks, Audie.

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