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A massive winter storm forces airlines to adjust their holiday travel schedules


Most of this country faced unusual cold the last few days. Some of this country faced intense snow, ice or rain. And when so much of the nation is affected, airlines, of course, are too. They canceled thousands of flights. More than 1,000 have been scrubbed today alone. Many more are delayed just as you, or someone like you, may be traveling for the holidays. So what does that mean? David Slotnick is the senior aviation business reporter with the travel site The Points Guy.

Welcome to the program.

DAVID SLOTNICK: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So this happens from time to time, but how bad is it this time?

SLOTNICK: Well, this time, it was about as bad as it gets. It was a situation where the storm was just really unprecedented in its size and its longevity. It affected airline hubs around the country, and it came during the busiest travel days of the year. It really couldn't have been more of a perfect storm...


SLOTNICK: ...Really not a scenario you see often, exactly, but...

INSKEEP: No pun intended, I guess we should emphasize. But go on. Go on, please.

SLOTNICK: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, it really was as bad as it gets. This is the kind of thing that, you know, network planners and airline planners really - it's the worst scenario they're looking at. And it all came true this weekend.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the aftermath. I can think of past travel times when I am at an airport, where the sun has come out, where the weather has cleared, and my plane is still not there because the plane is out of position. The crew is out of position. How out of position are airlines after the last several days?

SLOTNICK: They're pretty out of position. At this point, the travel system has more or less stabilized. Things aren't as bad as they were - Buffalo being the exception, where the airport is closed until tomorrow. But the airlines are really stuck trying to get everybody back into position. During a normal storm like this, or a hurricane or something, the expectation would be to be able to recover within a day or two. In this case, just - the storm was so widespread and so long-lasting that it wasn't possible.

They had planes that were just stranded around the country. Crew were completely overwhelmed. The people who schedule crew were completely overwhelmed. Flight attendants and pilots couldn't get through to their dispatchers and their schedulers. So it's really just a terrible situation. And now the airlines are stuck trying to recover from that, trying to get everybody back in place, just as people are trying to get where they need to go.

INSKEEP: Do you have friends and family who know what you do for a living and ask you if they should go ahead with their holiday travel plans?

SLOTNICK: Oh, constantly. I, myself, went through of my travel plans. I got lucky on the way down. Who knows what's going to happen on the way back?


SLOTNICK: But I had family who were stranded.

INSKEEP: Without - well - without getting too personal, where are you?

SLOTNICK: I'm in Florida.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. Good.

SLOTNICK: So I managed to skip the worst of it.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) That's great. And so how many days do you have until your return flight? And do you think things will be better by then?

SLOTNICK: Well, we're supposed to go back today, and I'm not sure. As of right now things are looking good. But more than 1,500 flights - or about 1,500 flights have been canceled around the country. That's much better than the last few days. But, you know, it's still an ongoing problem.

INSKEEP: I'd like to know if airlines learn from these experiences and find better ways to deal with the inevitable reality of the weather, which I guess could - we could expect it to get worse and worse with climate change over time. The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, warned airlines over the summer that they would face consequences if they did not improve operations, did not improve customer service. Are they finding ways to manage a situation like this better than, maybe, five years ago or 10 years ago?

SLOTNICK: You know, for the most part, they are. There's a situation where - you know, with the changing dynamics of the pandemic - there were a lot of people who were - a lot of airlines, rather - who were understaffed, and they were really flying more than they could handle. And that was going on, really, through the summer. Since then, and especially since Secretary Buttigieg, you know, was making those calls, the situation's gotten better.

The airlines have been more disciplined about the flights they're planning. They've been better about staffing up. And they've really done that with this kind of scenario in mind. The thing was, this was just so much worse than normal. This was such an unprecedented storm. So, you know, I think this is absolutely going to be a learning experience. It's just something that, you know, isn't really what we've seen before. And obviously, that's no consolation for the thousands of people around the country who are stranded or who missed Christmas. But, you know, it's unfortunately one of the vulnerabilities of the air travel network.

INSKEEP: I wonder what flying might be like in the new year, considering that a lot of businesses seem to be bracing for an economic slowdown. They're starting to cut costs. I would imagine that airlines are thinking about whether they can keep up full staffing or not.

SLOTNICK: Yeah. I mean, the airlines had so much trouble staffing back up that I think they're going to be very eager to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible. Right now they say that they're not expecting the worst. I spoke with the United Airlines CEO a couple weeks ago. He said that they're planning for a very small recession but don't expect really any impact on that except for possibly their yields or their margins. So, you know, ideally, it's going to be a situation where they can keep staff and just try and have some of that stability that they've lost over the last few years.

INSKEEP: Well, David Slotnick, safe travels to you if, in fact, you do get to travel today.

SLOTNICK: Much appreciated. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's senior aviation business reporter for The Points Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.