Airline Nightmare: Which Flight Will Take Off First?

Once airports reopen, how do airlines decide which flights take off first?

December 27, 2010, 1:26 PM

Dec. 27, 2010— -- Will your flight be the first to leave once airports in the Northeast reopen after this weekend's debilitating blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded at airports? Or will you be stuck behind a long line of flights trying to take to the skies?

When the runways reopen -- an event scheduled for late Monday afternoon -- the hundreds of canceled flights will take off in an order that is part complex formula set by the airlines and part luck of the draw.

It's is a bit of a free for all, but the airlines that have planes at the airport, fueled, de-iced and full of passengers will get the first slots.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles all traffic in and out of the nation's airports but doesn't get to favor one flight over another. It's first come, first serve, explained Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

Pilots will file flight plans as they are ready for departure. The local ground controller then gets a request from the pilot for clearance -- essentially a request to taxi and take off. Takemoto said the request is what earns the flight a spot in the queue. The only reason the FAA would deviate from that order is if planes needed to maneuver around snowbanks, or if there were some other problem on the taxiways.

The hardest hit airports are New York's big three. Flights at LaGuardia resumed around 4 p.m. today, with JFK and Newark Liberty re-opening at 7 p.m., according to the FAA's flight delay website.

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The airlines have their own set of rules to determine which flights they board first. The first -- and most important determining factor -- is which aircraft do they have available. They then try to stick to the normal flight schedule as much as possible.

"So, if Philadelphia airport reopens at 8 a.m., we usually resume operations with the closest departure after 8 a.m.," US Airways spokesman Derek Hanna told ABC News.

Flying to a Hub Might Get You Home Faster

There might be a few other factors at play, including whether destination airports are open, and priority might be given to flights headed to an airline's hub.

"They want to get their hubs in operation for people with connections," said George Hobica, president of

At New York's three main airports -- LaGuardia, JFK, Newark Liberty International -- hundreds of passengers were stranded overnight and given blankets and cots but not their checked luggage.

Jason Cochran, of Manhattan, told The Associated Press that vendors were running out of food, and he posted a tweet that said he'd waited in line for more than an hour at KFC.

Once planes do start moving, there is the question of which passengers get on those first flights out. For those who have been trapped for days, the answer isn't one they're likely going to want to hear.

Let's say the first flight to Detroit from New York on a particular airline is at 8 p.m. Monday night. The passengers who were originally scheduled for that Monday night flight get to keep their seats. Those on flights Saturday or Sunday or even Monday morning who have been waiting at the airport will have to wait even longer. If there are any empty seats on that flight, the airline will dole out those seats via a series of criteria.

"Passengers with existing reservations for flights will not be bumped for passengers from canceled flights. We will accommodate passengers from canceled flights as quickly as possible," said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran, which cancelled 57 flights Monday.

"If today is normal departure day, you are going to go first," said Anne Banas, executive editor of travel website SmarterTravel. "If you have a confirmed ticket, they are not going to bump you for somebody who has a canceled flight, even if they have been waiting for two days."

Virgin America has a similar policy, said spokeswoman Abby Lunardini.

"In an effort to get as many folks where they need to go as efficiently as possible, we are keeping unaffected scheduled flights on track and then reaccommodating canceled flight guests accordingly," she said.

The airlines can also sometimes bring in larger jets to accommodate more travelers. AirTran spokesman White said that is one option his airline is considering. But since this is one of the busiest travel weeks of the year and airlines are leaving fewer and fewer seats vacant, it could be days until stranded passengers make it home. Most of the airlines are also waiving their change fees as they try to get passengers with flexible schedules to fly later on.

So who does get those few empty seats when they become available? One determinant is elite status in a frequent flier program, and then the price paid for a ticket.

"First class passengers will get priority over passengers who paid next to nothing," Hobica said. "They definitely take care of their top fliers."

Policy varies from airline to airline, but generally the airlines will try to consider when passengers were originally scheduled to depart.

They are boarded based on how long they have waited; trying to get those onboard who have waited the longest," said John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, which is trying to resume canceled London-bound flights from New York, Washington, Boston and Baltimore.

Banas recommends that travelers keep trying to call their airlines directly.

"If you can call the airline directly on your cell phone, you can often get ahead of those waiting in line at the airport," she said.

That said, sometimes just being there, at the airport, live and in person, can help.

"Rebooking possibilities will vary depending on one's itinerary," said Christen David, a Continental spokeswoman. "Once flights resume at a particular city, travelers who are at an airport may be able to access a seat on a standby basis well before their confirmed flight."

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