A balancing act for airlines

When faced with cancellations, carriers weigh convenience, safety, economics

Delta Air Lines operations control center workers monitored stations in Atlanta. Delta Air Lines operations control center workers monitored stations in Atlanta. (John Amis for The Boston Globe)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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ATLANTA — Snowstorms in Boston. Civil unrest in Cairo. A tsunami in Japan. Explosions on the sun.

Miles away from these events, Vinny Belfini and the rest of the 750 staff members at Delta Air Lines’ operations control center consider each one — sometimes days in advance — to determine how many of the carrier’s thousands of daily flights will be affected.

The stakes are high: Working around weather and other disturbances is a complex process for airlines that involves balancing passenger safety and convenience with federal regulations and profitability. And now that carriers are flying fewer and fuller planes, there is less wiggle room to accommodate bumped passengers, resulting in a more widespread effect from cancellations.

The post-Christmas blizzard that blanketed Boston with 18 inches of snow, for instance, grounded 3,100 Delta flights and cost the carrier $45 million; the ice storm that paralyzed the South in early January led to 5,550 canceled Delta flights and set the airline back $30 million. Each time, the travel plans of tens of thousands of people were thrown into disarray.

“It’s a very, very delicate thing to balance,’’ said Belfini, a Delta sector manager who confers with multiple departments before he cancels a flight. “I have to kind of play this chess game.’’

US airlines have canceled nearly 88,000 of more than 2 million flights from December through February — the highest number in that period since the Portland, Ore., company FlightStats started keeping data in 2006. More than 3,300 of those flights were supposed to take off from Logan International Airport. The cancellations have been mostly due to an unusual ly treacherous winter, but political turmoil and natural disasters have also taken a toll.

“When delays start in one particular place, you can see the way it ripples out,’’ said Meara McLaughlin, vice president at FlightStats, noting that the company’s map marking significant delays in red looked like a completed “bingo blackout card’’ on several occasions this winter.

Like many carriers, Delta is pulling the plug on flights earlier than it used to, in part due to a shift in focus from getting planes off the ground to making it easier on passengers, who, with enough warning, can rebook their flights, said James Ford, general manager of Delta’s operations center. A new federal rule that threatens hefty fines if passengers sit on the tarmac for more than three hours has also increased early cancellations; 16 flights have violated the rule, down significantly since it went into effect in April, although no penalties have been issued.

When something out of the ordinary occurs, the process of canceling flights can be even trickier. Solar flares, for instance, can interfere with aircraft radio communication. And the Icelandic volcano that erupted last April caused more than 100,000 flight cancellations, though little was known about how volcanic ash affects airplane engines.

Delta’s goal, Ford said, is to get at least 80 percent of cancellations made 24 hours before a storm hits. Four major storms since Christmas forced the airline, which flies about 385,000 passengers per day in the winter, to cancel more than 13,000 flights, including those operated by their regional Delta Connection partners.

“We don’t plan for the perfect days. We plan for the bad days,’’ said Christina Riojas, a customer service duty manager who is sometimes on her BlackBerry at 3 in the morning dealing with canceled flights.

In January, the airline had a lot of bad days. Delta’s partner Atlantic Southeast Airlines had the highest rate of cancellations in the country, with 9.3 percent, followed by Delta at 6.3 percent. Delta also had the only three-hour-plus delay, a flight from Atlanta to Honolulu that sat on the tarmac for 211 minutes during the January ice storm.

At Logan, where Delta is the second-largest carrier, 13 percent of Delta’s arriving flights were canceled in January, and the other airlines didn’t fare much better: Logan, which is run by the Massachusetts Port Authority, had the worst on-time rate among the 29 busiest airports in the country.

Despite the number of cancellations, Delta considers its operations a success.

“We measure success by how effective we are at notifying our passengers about impending irregular operations events, offering them alternate travel options while keeping them out of airports during poor weather conditions,’’ said Ford.

The process of canceling flights begins with the Federal Aviation Administration, which holds teleconferences with the major airlines every two hours to review weather conditions and travel restrictions. When a storm is brewing, air traffic controllers work with the airlines to determine the number of arrivals an airport can handle per hour based on visibility and winds. Runway and taxiway conditions are also taken into account.

Less than a mile from its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta runs the biggest meteorology center of any airline in the world, with a staff of 27 forecasters monitoring air and surface conditions and producing hourly forecasts up to three days ahead of a storm. Before the early February storm that stretched from Texas to New England, dumping 7 inches of snow on Boston, they produced a 10-page report of turbulence, precipitation, and winds affecting 25 airports — the biggest forecast the department has ever produced.

Many airlines don’t have meteorologists on staff. In fact, several major carriers pay to use Delta’s forecasts. JetBlue Airways has a sole staff meteorologist who works with an outside vendor; American Airlines contracts out services from Weather Services International in Andover.

At Delta, the day begins with a 7:30 a.m. call with about 30 operations managers around the country, checking in about weather, plane maintenance, crew schedules, and airport conditions. At 8:45 a.m., a dozen managers gather around a conference table to discuss the five-day forecast. On a recent day, the focus was on a concentration of rain, snow, and fog from Memphis to Boston. The storm ended up being all rain in Boston, but resulted in 22 canceled Delta flights in and out of Logan.

Alongside the weather forecasters, dispatchers, customer service managers, and others at the control center monitor potential disruptions around the clock, watching news of political unrest and earthquakes unfold on 6-by-8-foot screens. Dennis Tiszafalvy, duty director, can see nearly every detail of 1,600-plus Delta flights in an eight-hour window unfolding on five computers in front of him.

“When I started we had a single green screen,’’ said operations center manager Ford, who started as a mechanic 33 years ago. “Now I can grab 60 flights and delay them with one click.’’

When deciding which flights to cancel, the airline has to consider how many unaccompanied minors are onboard, how long it will take to de-ice a plane, and which flights are the least disruptive to rebook. Belfini refers to the canceling of flights early on to get the airline schedule back on track later in the day as creating a “hole in time.’’ It’s not a task he takes lightly.

“I do feel deeply for the people I’m affecting,’’ he said. “It’s a necessary evil.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at