No Such Thing as All-Weather Flying

But for each one of those suspensions, there is a flight crew that will probably not make it to its next layover destination as planned and an airliner that will be in the wrong place. When you then involve Memphis; Little Rock, Ark.; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and many other smaller airports -- and when the regional airlines serving those cities can't pick up or distribute the passengers flown to or from major hubs like Chicago -- a backlog of misconnected flights and displaced passengers begins to roll like a small tsunami through the system.

As each major carrier struggles to reposition aircraft and flight crews it has extremely complex problems to solve. Flight crews must not be left on duty past a certain number of hours, and some will have to be sent to hotels while others are put on other flights to deadhead to a new starting point.

Aircraft have very precise preventive maintenance schedules, but even the simplest of ground checks or repairs may not be easily accomplished if the airliner is at the wrong airport overnight. In years long past when company mechanics were at every station, this wasn't as much of a problem, but in the age of contracted maintenance, disruptions like Katrina create a cascade of coordination problems as multiple airlines lean heavily on the services of a single contract maintenance firm at a given airport.

Baggage, too, can become a national nightmare, even though such disruptions happen more often when a blizzard shuts down the Eastern seaboard in winter. Whatever the weather-related cause, it has, in the past, taken major carriers sometimes up to a week to untangle the resulting mess, returning bags to passengers and restarting the smooth flow of their flight schedule.

And for you, the passenger standing stranded and on standby with a full-fare ticket as the result of a weather-related cancellation, there is little joy. The airlines rush to make it clear they are not responsible for your food and lodging when a Katrina blows into town, and even in the absence of a storm, most flights are so crammed with passengers paying less than the cost of the service that getting a standby seat is often impossible.

Our airlines for decades have claimed all-weather operations, but in fact there are types of weather we will never be able to challenge, and types of disruptions that are simply too national in scope to be shrugged off. While there may be a lot to be upset about in today's airline non-service-oriented environment, flight crews, flight attendants, and the airlines themselves need your understanding and patience when something as massive as Katrina attacks.

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