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Which is Worse, Summer or Winter Flying?

Everything was running smoothly at 2:55. By 3:30 the next flight had cancelled. Shortly after, the sky went dark and flights to everywhere became chaotic jumble of delays and cancellations and “oversale” lists 100 names long. JFK reportedly had 6,000 stranded people that began to be bussed to Long Island in search of available hotels. The travel scene looked more like February than July.

In my mind, winter has always the boogeyman at work. The inevitable snowstorms meant I couldn’t count on a full paycheck. (Remember, if a crew’s trip cancels we have to try and find flying on other days to make up the time and get paid. This has improved in some circumstances, but the principle remains.) It’s inevitable that sometime during the season you’ll be stuck on a layover for days. The best crew can do is cross their fingers it’s not during a time when they have personal stuff they’d especially like to be home for – and that they’re stuck with colleagues they like.

The only real issue with summer was the crowds. Flight schedules are beefed up and there’s never an empty seat anywhere. In confined quarters, day after day, that begins to wear a bit. This crowding, and the higher percentage of less-experienced travelers, also means passenger drama is at an all time high. No five-day surprise layovers, though. I can count on getting work done – and getting on with life.

Ok sure, the plane might be sweltering during boarding. That’s a drag, but never mind. At least things keep moving, right?

Storms might pop up to cause snarls, but they move on and the operation clears up pretty quickly.

At least that’s what I always thought, but this summer feels pretty dysfunctional. Suddenly, I’m no longer sure, does summer make for more convenient travel?

Winter flying does have its softer sides. We tend to see storms coming. Passengers can rebook in advance and avoid the worst of the airport chaos. If you’re on a trip and storms hit, you might get stuck somewhere for days, but at least you’re very possibly just that – stuck cooling your heels, waiting for the gears to start turning again.

It’s always been a good thing that summer storms tend to shift quickly, but now I’m seeing that that just catches everyone out and keeps them hanging around for the moment things move again. Instead of waiting for snowplows and metal to get into position, it’s all jostling around in a bottleneck as passengers get rebooked and rebooked again (and crews reassigned and reassigned again!) when the next flights fall through, too.

Winter also has the advantage of lighter passenger loads. We see a blissful handful of half empty planes in the darkest months, and that’s always been the one bright spot of winter work. We are just as happy as you when passengers get a row to themselves! In the big picture that also means there is somewhere to rebook passengers to when weather has cancelled other flights.

Summer just doesn’t work that way. There are no half empty flights to accommodate previously stranded passengers. Every single flight is overbooked to begin with. There’s nowhere for the passenger backlog to flow to. This has been true for a while but seems to get more pronounced each year.

On that note, I’m not sure if it looks the same to passengers, but this summer has been brutal from a crew perspective. I have flight attendants all over the place telling me (e.g.) they haven’t had one trip in two months that didn’t experience a delay or cancellation, that the company is constantly out of reserves and regular line holders are being reassigned, their trips repeatedly extended, only to find themselves on surprise layovers without hotel assignments. Crews are going to work for one and two day trips that turn into four and five day ones.

Did I somehow have years of relative summer luck? Perhaps, but I suspect there is one thing that’s getting worse along with the load factors – the love affair airlines are currently having with “optimization”.

The concept is nothing new, of course, but airlines have been pushing like never before. It brings to mind a recent Forbes article that see airlines “Running Out of Tricks to Solve” revenue sag. You name it, it’s being scheduled to the limits. It’s interesting that last week AA pilots claimed the company was pressuring things like taxi times and flight speeds. I’d have no insight there, but I do know the standard times scheduled for passenger connections, boarding, crew rest, transfer between flights in a crew sequence – it’s all been minimized, along with the number of agents and crew working a flight. Meanwhile, employee duty days and the number of seats filled (at whatever cost) are being maximized, leaving no room to absorb adjustments when things go wrong. It’s classic advice for travelers always to make plans that allow for delays and unexpected circumstances. Airlines should know to do the same.

That’s my personal theory as to why, but whatever the reason, I might be changing my mind on which season’s flying is preferable. Winter flight work is a clumsy, lumbering giant, but summer’s looks more and more like a gauntlet. I’m no longer sure which is worse.

[Photo: Deicing Innovations]

Comments are Closed.
BHammy September 1, 2016

Winter...sure there is snow, sleet, ice and baggage handlers that loathe the process, but with winter is denser air...better for the turbines, more efficient for lift. Summer brings heat, rain, and baggage handlers throwing luggage as if a workout program. In summer, lift, air density, humidity (resulting in 'thinner' air) all have to be calculated and accounted for. Winter has to deal with baggage calculations, COG and braking of failed take-offs, but more accurate than high temp issues. Bring on the cold air over hot cabins, any day.

ansix12 August 26, 2016

Winter for me. Aside from the issues already mentioned. The line ups to de-ice the aircraft adds to the delays. I have experience wait time at de-icing bays of a hour or more. But it is still an on time departure

jonsg August 7, 2016

To be fair, @weero, the best we can hope for these days is a "Grin and bear it" experience. If it exceeds that, it's a great flight.

weero August 5, 2016

At least the author implicitly concedes that in this day and age, both winter and summer travel provides us with a bad experience .....

KRSW August 3, 2016

My vote is for winter... #1) Winter clothing takes up more space, especially in overhead bins. #2) More often my carry-on gets gate-checked if I'm doing a close connection OR have managed to get a row with later boarding order. #3) De-icing fluid on my luggage #4) Winter delays tend to be counted in days rather than hours #5) TSA doesn't adapt its schedule to account for the airfield being closed for 2 days, so trying to get out the first day it's reopened is a guaranteed security mess.