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Airlines better at getting grounded fliers going

9:47 PM, Feb 26, 2014   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) - In the midst of February's midwinter wallop, which left the South and Northeast in an icy daze, Bill Brenner was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Houston. But thanks to a call from his carrier, he was able to skirt the storm.

"Delta was nice enough to alert me on Tuesday afternoon, giving me plenty of time to call ... and get rerouted,'' says Brenner, a swimming club and coach services director who is a member of USA TODAY's Road Warriors panel.

A rejiggered itinerary from Tampa, to Memphis to Houston got Brenner to his business meeting that Thursday. The next morning, a tweaked flight plan through Detroit got Brenner home to Florida for an equally important appointment, "in time to take my wife to dinner for Valentine's Day.''

Bitter cold and fierce storms have led to the cancellation of tens of thousands of flights this year, leaving millions of fliers in the lurch, and airlines with the daunting task of finding alternate paths to get many of them to their final destinations.

But even as cancellations mount, airlines have become more efficient at getting stuck passengers where they want to go with steps they take before a storm, expanded networks that have multiplied passengers' flying options and software that automatically rebooks travelers on alternate flights.

Once a flight is scuttled, It takes an estimated 18 additional hours for travelers to reach their final destinations, according to masFlight, a data and software firm focused on air travel, citing government figures.

Still, the wait is often shorter, as some passengers rent a car or hop a train to get where they need to go, says Josh Marks, masFlight's CEO. Mega-mergers among U.S. airlines, such as the tie-up of United with Continental in 2010, have also been helpful.

"Instead of Continental having three hubs to work with around the country, United has eight hubs,'' Marks says. "That has a huge benefit for the number of ... available paths. So while the cancellation rate may have gone up in bad weather, the ability of the airlines to use technology and these broader networks to get you where you're going has gotten much better.''

As of Feb. 14, masFlight says, there had been 76,400 flight cancellations this year, affecting 5.7 million fliers and making this winter the worst for flight operations since 2010.

The mid-February storm led Delta to cancel roughly 4,000 flights, affecting its hub in Atlanta, and New York's LaGuardia and JFK. But the carrier started waiving rebooking fees for passengers the Sunday before, knowing bad weather was on its way.

"We know a weather event like this is coming,'' says Morgan Durrant, a Delta spokesman. The airline tries to start waiving ticket change fees 24 to 36 hours before bad weather strikes to give passengers a chance to travel before, as well as after a storm, he says. "Customers understand that inclement weather is not conducive to flying and flying safely. What they really tell us they want are options and flexibility.''

In addition to those who proactively switch their flight, there are some passengers - such as the business trekker whose meeting can only happen on a certain date - who decide not to travel at all and take a refund. Both scenarios provide leeway for rebooking the remaining passengers whose flights were scuttled, Durrant says.

Airlines have software that automatically rebooks passengers when their flights are canceled, and Durrant notes that passengers can also use Delta's website or mobile app, as well as agents, to retool their trips.

As have other major carriers that have grown in the wake of the recent spate of mergers, Delta's multiple hubs make redoing itineraries a bit easier. If Atlanta is experiencing a bout of bad weather, for instance, passengers could possibly be rerouted through Detroit, Minneapolis or Salt Lake City.

"We have those types of rebooking options based on the size of our network,'' Durrant said of Delta, which merged with Northwest in 2008. "Certainly, you could easily find a customer who got a re-accommodation option that wasn't their first choice, but ... we're able to get a solution there that's reasonable.''

JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young says, "Rebooking customers after a flight has been canceled is a nuanced process.''

When fewer people are flying, passengers can be rebooked on the next available flight, but it's more difficult to ferret out an empty seat during a busy holiday weekend. Still Young says, "in some cases where larger numbers of customers are impacted, we are able to arrange for extra flights to help.'

Improved booking software has made a once tedious process smoother. "Previously, such processes were very manual and time intensive,'' says Young. "But the newer systems ... have automated most of these processes and have allowed us to react more quickly, as well as proactively, to find accommodations on other flights for our customers.''

When it comes to the rising number of canceled flights, bad weather isn't the only culprit. Federal regulations that require pilots to get more rest time and threaten airlines with steep fines if they keep passengers on a plane that's sitting at the airport for longer than three hours are also boosting cancellations, Marks says.

But while airlines don't have to pay for a passenger's lodging or meals when their flight is scrapped due to bad weather, some carriers have voluntarily picked up the tab to keep fliers happy while they're stuck on the ground.

"They are bending over backward to take care of passengers' to really maintain market share and retain highest value passengers,'' Marks says.

That appears to be the case with Scott Cohen, a USA TODAY Road Warrior who is a sales director for a pharmaceutical company.

Cohen was heading home in early February, connecting through Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, when bad weather waylaid his trip. After his flight from Raleigh-Durham was canceled several times, he wound up spending two extra days in North Carolina.

Cohen asked Delta whether it would reimburse him for the extra nights he'd need to spend in a hotel, and the airline agreed, giving him a voucher that he could use for a flight or other perk.

"I was a little bit surprised,'' Cohen said. But, he noted, as an elite member of the airline's frequent-flier program "they generally want to keep us happy.''

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