The Strange World of Airline Cancellations

Departure Board Cancelled Flights

The aviation talk of the week is Bill Saporito’s 2,900-word cover story in Time Magazine. Airport Confidential: Inside the Strange World of Airline Cancellations.

Saporito had behind-the-scenes access to American Airlines’ integrated Operations Control Center and the people who work there. He sought answers to who makes the call to cancel a flight, and what’s the thinking behind that decision?

“These are the men and women who decide if your flight takes off on time or leaves you stranded,” Saporito writes. Often the decision is made by an algorithm with input by human operators, deciding which flights can be scrapped while keeping the airline’s schedule “as whole as possible.”

At AA, the algorithm is nicknamed “The Cancellator” (seriously). Programs like it at other airlines “attempt to keep the chaos in the system to a minimum even as it maximizes the headaches for the unlucky.”

What Saporito found was complex reasoning that doesn’t always consider bad weather or problems with aircraft. Airlines cancel and reschedule flights every day. Often the decision is based on profitability (do we really want to fly just 23 people to Fargo, N.D.?). The number of top-tier frequent flyers on board also plays into the equation. The more hardcore loyal customers, the less likely it is that the flight will be cancelled.

The Cancellator and its masters decide which flights to cancel, taking into account such factors as the aforementioned number of ‘elite’ frequent flyers on a route. Of course, weather is a big factor, even the likelihood of ground crews making it to work. One snowy week this month saw more than 1,400 flights cancelled and nearly 79,000 “erased” by the polar vortex

We learn that airlines try to make decisions before passengers leave for the airport. “We will do anything possible to avoid real-time cancellations,” a JetBlue official told Saporito. “Nobody likes people standing in the airport watching real-time cancellations happen.”

At the AA nerve center, teams of experts range from meteorologists, airport managers, flight-attendant supervisors, crew schedulers, customer-service teams, diversion coordinators, specialists in each type of jet that American flies, maintenance and parts trackers, and flight-operations engineers.

One of their considerations when a storm hits is that “planes and crews end up in far-flung places, and retrieving them is time-consuming and expensive.”

They monitor all the variables and feed them into the Cancellator. Factors include passengers who will miss their next flight and pilots who work extra hours in violation.

The Cancellator “proposes a hit list” factoring such variable as new government regulations designed to prevent passengers from being held captive on the tarmac, which carries hefty fines for airlines.

There are three broad dimensions to the task of canceling a flight: customers, crews and jets. And customers don’t always come first. “Something may be fully optimized for customers [initially], but it’s going to destroy you the next day because you are going to have crews totally out of position,” one airline executive said.

Aircraft are merely “pieces in a large-scale chess game” and international flights have a high priority. So do domestic flights that “are ferrying crews, particularly to those international flights.”

If your flight is full of “terminators,” travelers who aren’t connecting, then your odds of cancellation go up. All passengers are not created equal. A plane loaded with discounted leisure flyers “scores lower in the Cancellator’s calculations than one loaded with full-fare business types.”

The Tarmac’s View: If there is a nut graph to Saporito’s reporting it is this: “Our civil aviation system works no better than just O.K. on a perfect day–without weather, without labor issues, without mechanical malfunction. But on a bad day, like the one I spent witnessing the operation of American’s command center, the whole thing can grind to a halt. Turns out, the cancellations most travelers experience as random and cruel are anything but.”

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