Another winter storm is on its way to the east coast and airlines are canceling flights and posting travel advisories and change fee waivers.
If you’re traveling to, through or from an east coast city, there’s a fair chance your flight will be canceled due to weather. If your flight isn’t canceled (yet…) you want to change your plans anyway.
Here’s a rundown of cancellation and change fee waiver policies posted by many airlines as of Monday evening, January 20, 2014.
And as always, it’s always a good idea to check with your airline before you head to the airport.
Alaska Airlines: East coast travel advisory details here.
American Airlines: Travel advisory in effect for January 21-22. Change fee waivers apply to, from or through a long list of east coast cities. Details here.
Delta Airlines: Travel advisory posted for January 21-22 for tickets that must be reissued before January 25th. Change fee waiver applies to a long list of east coast cities. Details here.
JetBlue: Travel advisory applies to flights scheduled January 21-22. Waivers for cancellations or changes to, through or from a long list of east coast cities. Details here.
Spirit Airlines has a weather buster travel advisory in place. Details here.
United Airlines: United’s travel advisory covers January 21 (for now…) and applies to cities affected by weather in the New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. areas. Details here.
US Airways: Travel advisory in effect through January 22, 2014 for a long list of east coast cities. Details here.
Virgin America: Northeast travel advisory covers flights through January 22 for flight to, through or from BOS, EWR, JFK, PHL, IAD and DCA. Details here.
Southwest Airlines has its travel advisory information posted here.
As explanation, JetBlue tweeted: “The safety and comfort of our customers is top priority, both weather and infrastructure issues made remote deplaning impossible,” and “We are sorry for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, sometimes weather can foil even the best laid plans.”
The governor of Connecticut was reportedly sending 1000 cots to the Hartford airport, but that seemed little consolation to @kathylubey who tweeted: “Stuck in Hartford airport after being diverted from jfk. Bar closed all day. Seeking congratulations for weeping only once.”
Like the plowed snow at many airports, registrations for the 45th annual International Aviation Snow Symposium are beginning to pile up.
Held each April, most often in snowstorm-prone Buffalo, the symposium bestows awards on airports that excel in battling the white stuff and offers airport staff a chance to chill out and swap war stories about what went right or wrong, weather-wise, during the previous winter.
So far this season, storms have triggered the cancellation of thousands of flights and forced the temporary closing of many airports. That means there’ll be plenty to talk about at this year’s conference, as attendees try to take in tactics to make you less likely to get stuck at an airport next winter.
But when it comes to operations in unforgiving winter weather, not all airports are created equal.
Art. Not science.
“It’s not a science. There’s no book out there called Airport Snow Removal for Dummies,” says Paul Hoback, maintenance director for the Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports. “It’s more of an art.”
“Experience helps,” adds Hoback. “Our people have to know how to treat different types of precipitation and how to react to wind speed and wind direction so they don’t push the snow off the runway and have it blow right back on. They also have to understand what different types of ice and snow might do when they hit the ground.”
That knowledge, good planning and communication and the right equipment were all in place at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) last February 5th when a storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow at the airport.
“The storm was too much for many airports in the Northeast,” says Hoback, “And even we ended up closing for 17 hours. Our crews took that as a defeat but fought to get the airfield back open so that one or two airplanes with transplant organs aboard could land.”
For its efforts during that storm, Pittsburgh airport won one of a coveted Balchen/Post Awards at last year’s International Aviation Snow Symposium. Dulles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare and the Greater Rochester International Airport took home first-place awards as well.
Boston Logan International Airports Vammas machines in action
At Boston Logan International Airport, which won a Balchen/Post Award in 2009, airport spokesperson Richard Walsh says, “We consider snow a four letter word. We go out there and battle storms to the end.”
Logan was closed for a just a few hours last Wednesday during a storm that dumped heavy snow on parts of New England. In Logan’s corner during that storm: a snow plan, determination and eleven, 68-foot long Vammas snow machines, each a giant plow, sweeper and blower rolled-into-one. When working in unison, airport officials boast that the Vammas fleet can clear a 10,000 foot runway in less than 15 minutes.
Snow plow shoot plumes of snow at Buffalo Niagara International Airport
Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, which hosts the annual aviation snow symposium, has won the Balchen/Post award multiple times. And although it gets an average of more than 8 feet of snow a year, it’s been more than three years since BUF has had to close due to snow.
“At the first snowflake we’ll send out a whole fleet of broom trucks to immediately begin brushing the pavement,” says airfield superintendent Tom Dames. “When snow piles up, we also have monster truck snow blowers that churn up snow and spit it out into the fields away from the runway. It looks a lot like fireboats shooting out plumes of water; except these are huge plumes of snow.”
Do-over in Denver
A few years back, Denver International Airport learned some important snow lessons the hard way.
Denver Airport has a new approach to snow removal
In 2006, just days before Christmas, Denver got hit with a blizzard that dumped 22 inches of snow in a 24-hour period. “The airport was closed for 22 hours,” says Mark Nagel, Denver Airport’s Acting Deputy Manager of Aviation. “It took us that long to clean up and get a couple of runways and our ramps clear.”
3,000 passengers spent their Christmas stranded at Denver airport that year. Nagel says “No one was too thrilled. We did kind of receive a black eye for that because it took us so long to recover.”
The problem was too big to sweep under a pile of snow. Instead, a consultant was hired; a study was conducted and DIA learned that, when it came to snow, the airport was inefficient, unorganized, understaffed and armed with not enough equipment.
The fixes included retraining, reorganizing and reassessing snow removal priorities. And now, like other airports, DIA has a snow committee that meets year-round with airlines, the FAA and other airport stakeholders to make sure the snow control plan is realistic and up-to-date.
Denver International Airport has also invested millions of dollars in new equipment and switched from single-function to more modern multi-function machinery that can plow and sweep at the same time. “So instead of taking 45-minutes to an hour to clear a runway, we can now do it in less than 15 minutes” says Ron Morin, Denver Airport’s Director of Aviation Field Maintenance.
And instead of having a single snow team, the Denver airport now has eight; each with a dedicated function. Team members were offered the chance to name their machines, but they asked instead to name their teams. Now, whenever it snows, you’ll see the Snow Cats, the Marauders, the Taxi Way Tuxedoes, the Blizzard Busters, the Deice Men Cometh, the Ramp Rats and the Snow Dawgs taking care of business.
Advice from Anchorage Airport and Mother Nature
Anchorage Airport has never closed due to snow
Anchorage International Airport has won the Balchen/Post award four times and is always ready for snow. “Our snow season lasts from October through mid-April,” says Airfield Maintenance manager Dan Frisby. “At other airports it will snow and then melt. Here, the snow can stick around all year long.”
Frisby and assistant manager Zaramie Lindseth know the airport has been closed due to volcanic ash, a windstorm, the 1964 earthquake and, like other U.S. airports, for a few days after 9/11. But they can find no records that show the airport has ever been closed due to ice or snow.
In addition to having the right equipment, Frisby says it’s important that airports maintain their equipment and not skimp on the cost of crews and supplies. “Some airports try and hold back on the chemicals. And it just bites you. You’ve got to go into attack mode when a storm starts and use the chemicals as they were designed.”
No matter how well an airport prepares, though, sometimes snow happens and there’s really nothing anyone can do.
“When Denver International Airport opened, it was touted as the all-weather airport,” says DIA’s Mark Nagel. “They said ‘We’ll never close.’ But we’ve learned the hard way that you have to respect Mother Nature and balance safety with the goal of staying open.”
All photos courtesy of the featured airports. Thank-you.
Do you know an airport that does really well in the snow? Let us know!
Want to find out when you or someone you’ve been waiting for will get on a plane?
Make sure you’re signed up for all methods of flight status alerts and are following your airline and your airport on Facebook and Twitter – if they’re there.
Now that planes are moving, it should start getting easier to rebook and/or confirm a flight. Try doing it online yourself before getting on the phone or on a long line, which can take hours. Several airlines are re-booking travelers via Twitter, so give that a try as well. Keep in mind though, that it will take several days for get everyone where they’re going, so if you’re heading to an airport, take along some food, activities to keep you busy, a charged cell-phone, good humor and lots of patience. While you wait, my USA TODAY airport guides and assorted apps from airlines, airports and third-party entities may help you find amenities, shops and restaurants.
And if you’ve missed the event you were heading to in the first place, ask for a refund, take out your calendar and start making a new post-blizzard plan.
With an east coast blizzard underway on Sunday evening, trains, buses, cars and airplanes were at a standstill and several airports in the New York region closed down entirely.
The cancellation of thousands of flights to and from the east coast means major disruption elsewhere as well, so traveling anywhere on Monday and Tuesday – and no doubt later in the week – will be no picnic.
For those of you stuck at an airport or trying to figure out how to avoid ending up that way, here are some tools and tips that may be useful.
*Take the waiver. If you’re scheduled to fly in the next few days and your flight hasn’t already been canceled, chances are your airline is offering to let you change flight plans without a change fee. Do it. When planes do start flying, you’ll have a reserved seat while travelers from all these canceled flights will be working their way up standby lists.
*Make sure you’re signed up to receive all the Twitter, Facebook, email and text alerts being sent out by airlines and airports on your itinerary. In many cases that information is more up-to-date than the information available inside the airport.
(Finding a power outlet and keeping your cell phone or laptop charged while you’re hanging out at the airport might be a challenge – so ask someone to do this for you at home as well.)
*Make sure you have supplies: if you’re going to the airport, be sure to bring snacks, books and other items to keep you entertained, a charged cell-phone, a change of clothing, something you can sit on (and perhaps sleep on) and a bucket of good humor and patience. A lot of this is going to be out of everyone’s control.