ATW Editor's Blog

What Sandy Tells Us About Airline Resilience

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For those on the ground in New Jersey and New York, the misery wrought by Hurricane Sandy continues - many expect to be contending with the damage of floods and wind and will be without power, managing through poor communications, and long lines for fuel and supplies for days to come.

Up in the air, it's a different story. Airlines and the area's main airports are pretty much running normal operations.

Delta said today it estimates the hurricane will have cost the airline $45 million. Delta cancelled more than 3,500 flights in October, which caused a 2% system capacity reduction versus prior year.

"Delta's New York area operations are recovering from the storm's disruption. As of Thursday, Delta is operating at close to full schedule at New York-JFK and Newark, and operating at 80% of its normal schedule at LaGuardia. The company anticipates flying a full schedule at LaGuardia today," the airline said.

Other airlines told ATW it was still too early to know the cost of their cancelled flights in and out of the US northeast, but I would anticipate carriers such as United and US Airways having similar financial impacts.

But it's worth noting that from the air transportation business perspective, this hurricane ultimately became a relative storm-in-a-teacup event. That was not by accident or luck; airlines and airports rapidly switched to their crisis management plans and shut down the aviation system -- keeping it and people out of harm's way - well in advance of the storm.

One of the very few positive things one can say about a hurricane is that you have lots of advance warning and time to prepare. And prepare is exactly what the airlines and airports did. Plans to cancel most of the estimated 9,000 flights that were initially scrubbed were made far in advance and while the storm was still hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic.

That's how it should be, because that's the safest, most efficient, least disruptive and ultimately least costly way to run airline operations in these type of emergency situations.

Kudos, however, should still go to all those airline, airport and FAA ATC people who clearly executed their plans smoothly, professionally and without drama. Which is why the entire system could then be restarted in a remarkably short time, even as chaos continues on the ground in some of the worst hit areas.

Another thing to remember is that airlines and airports around the world have operated through far worse scenarios in recent times. And nobody in New York needs to be reminded of that fact.

Most recently, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is another example of a completely devastating tragedy that struck without warning and from which you would think any recovery for those airlines directly impacted would be years in the making (remember, the subsequent nuclear catastrophe further deepened the negative effects on air travel to region for months after).

And yet... just this week, Japan's two largest carriers, ANA and JAL, announced their fiscal 1st half financial results and both are extraordinarily healthy. ANA posted a $0.5 billion profit while JAL posted a $1.2 billion profit (it must be said, JAL has been helped greatly by its restructuring and government aid through its bankruptcy process).

I was in Tokyo about a year ago, for the inaugural passenger flight of ANA's first Boeing 787, and the sheer joy and pride shown by ANA and Narita Airport employees at having achieved that historic landmark barely seven months after national catastrophe is something I will never forget. One ANA manager told me how the air traffic control towers in the area were the only safe havens for some people during the tsunami and time and again, airport and airline employees risked their lives to drag victims - some disabled and in wheelchairs - up to safety.

This is an incredibly resilient industry that lives, breathes and joins with the communities it serves.

Despite the impacts of the hurricane, Delta continued to have excellent operational performance in October. The carrier reported today that its completion factor for the month was 98%, and 85.5% of flights arrived on time.

That's the global airline industry at work.

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