Unyielding Winter Weather Inconveniences Airlines, Passengers

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 22, 2014; 3:15 AM ET
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Heavy snow and subzero temperatures spreading throughout much of the United States have not only delayed winter travel for airline customers but have also left staff and crew displaced. The winter months tend to lead to higher costs for airlines because of mandatory overtime, safety measures, fuel costs and aircraft de-icing.

"It's been a challenging winter," US Airways-American Airlines Spokesman Todd Lehmacher said. "Our goal is to run as reliable of an operation as possible; it's very expensive not to run a reliable operation."

Lehmacher said preparations are made as soon as possible when dealing with incoming winter storms to accommodate crews and passengers.

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"We may need to accommodate crew members in other cities last minute if their flight is canceled or delayed due to weather," he said. "We usually don't have a lot of hotel rooms on standby versus what is contracted each month, but may have to secure at the last minute. Fortunately, our hotel partners understand this and are great to work with during irregular operations that winter brings."

In addition to crew costs, de-icing and preparing the ramp for ground crews, safety is also a vital concern.

"There is definitely a cost for the airline and an inconvenience to our customers and employees," Lehmacher said. "It's been a very impactful winter, but we don't have an estimate at this time."

The airline will be releasing the information in March during the next fiscal quarter.

An Alaska Air plane is serviced at Newark Liberty International Airport, Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, in Newark, N.J. Many flights were canceled at the airport due to snowfall. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

However, the airline's main concern is safety, according to Lehmacher.

Preventing the ramp area surrounding the aircraft from icing over is essential in maintaining the normal flight schedule and ensuring that crew members working on the ground do not suffer injury when preparing the aircraft for takeoff or loading baggage at the gate.

"It's important that we treat that area so the ice doesn't build up," Lehmacher said. "We put a chemical down that's been FAA approved to make sure it doesn't freeze up and to make sure it's safe for employees."

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Concerns regarding the temperatures and working conditions for outdoor crews are also taken into consideration during the process. In the inevitable circumstance that an aircraft maintains its engine running because of harsh weather conditions, fuel is also an added cost to the airline.

"There is definitely an additional cost of burnt fuel," Lehmacher said, adding cancellations may help balance out this total cost.

In order to maintain a more reliable operation, American Airlines, who recently merged with US Airways in December 2013, will issue travel advisories to their customers in advance of a large storm that could have adverse effects on travel plans.

"We have a lot of flexibility by having several hubs to reroute passengers through," Lehmacher said. "One of our biggest tools is the travel advisory that is sent out though email, or on the customer's mobile phone to notify them in advance; they will have the option to change their flight online and the airline will waive the change fees."

A board displays canceled flights at Logan International Airport in Boston on Saturday evening, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

This system has drastically decreased wait times and traffic at airports, according to Lehmacher.

Southwest Airlines offers a similar service, and like US Airways-American Airlines, may allow passengers to reschedule their flights a few days in advance to the expected storm.

"We have a customer accommodations team that is always monitoring the weather," Southwest Airlines Spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said. "If we know there is a hurricane or bad weather conditions, we will issue special accommodations for certain cities."

The Southwest Airlines Proactive Customer Care Team is responsible for issuing special accommodations to reschedule flights without charging customers additional fees.

"It's their choice and it's allowing the customer to decide ahead of time," Agnew said.

Agnew could not disclose specific details about the financial impact this winter has had on the airline's staffing and expenditures. There are times when employees are required to work mandatory overtime and additional costs are accrued because of adverse weather conditions, she said.

In addition, flight crews and flight attendants are often scheduled to be on-call if the airline predicts unfavorable flight conditions ahead of time.

While winter still grips the country, it looks like passengers and airlines will continue to deal with the adverse affects.


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