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Adding up the Airline Cancellations Caused by the Polar Vortex

Jan 08, 2014 8:00 am

Skift Take

As the thaw begins, airlines are heating up their PR efforts to put a good face on their performance during these frigid days.

— Jason Clampet

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Glacial temperatures gripping large parts of the United States and Canada disrupted thousands of flights on Tuesday, creating challenges for airlines seeking to recover from recent snow and ice storms.

JetBlue Airways resumed departures from New York area and Boston airports after shutting down flights in those cities on Monday evening to position crews and aircraft as it sought to recover from bad weather and delays that piled up in recent days.

Frigid air that broke decades-old records in the middle United States moved eastward on Tuesday. Airlines had fewer cancellations on Tuesday compared with previous days, but the cold temperatures still caused problems.

Delta Air Lines said ice and snow in Detroit that disabled fuel gear led it to suspend several hundred regional flights there on Tuesday. Air Canada said flights to, from or connecting through 15 airports in Canada and the U.S. Northeast could be delayed or canceled into Thursday.

Overall, more than 3,100 flights had been canceled on Tuesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.com. That compared with nearly 4,600 cancellations on Monday.

Among major carriers, Southwest had canceled 322 flights on Tuesday and JetBlue had 226 cancellations, according to FlightAware.com. United Continental had 141 halted flights, and American Airlines and its American Eagle unit had 516 cancellations combined.

Airports taking the hardest hit were Chicago O’Hare, where 405 flights, or about 33 percent of the total were canceled; and Toronto Pearson International, where 177 flights, or 27 percent of its total, were halted.

At Chicago O’Hare, American put its fueling pumper and tanker trucks in a hangar to keep them from freezing, spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said. Fueling was “slow but consistent,” Fagan said in an email.

United was operating a reduced schedule at O’Hare because of continued effects of cold weather, spokeswoman Mary Clark noted. Southwest said it was operating a “limited schedule” at Chicago Midway airport.

Toronto Pearson airport said gusty winds and extreme cold weather, which Environment Canada said was minus 37 degrees Celsius (minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit) with wind chill, was freezing equipment and posing a safety concern for workers.

JetBlue to Feel More Financial Impact

Winter storms are a major issue for airlines in the first quarter. Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst with Raymond James, said it was too early to assess financial impact for carriers as a whole from the latest storms and cancellations. She added that JetBlue’s results would likely be more affected than those of carriers that have more geographically diversified networks.

New York-based JetBlue has most of its operations in the U.S. Northeast, and its network was also hurt by weekend runway shutdowns at John F. Kennedy airport, its major base, Syth said.

“Outside of JetBlue, I don’t think the impacts (for other airlines) on an earnings basis will be that meaningful,” Syth said.

Dan Baker, chief executive at FlightAware, said the current spate of cancellations tied to winter weather was not the worst airlines have seen compared with other storms in recent years.

“We’re seeing only about 3,000 flights canceled a day; we’ve certainly seen 5,000 and above that (with other storms),” Baker said this week. “The reason this (current situation) is really impactful is it’s tied with extreme temperatures that are so unusual.”

New U.S. government rules that took effect Saturday requiring more rest for pilots took effect were a “complicating factor” in recent flight cancellations, JetBlue told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday.

JetBlue said it added extra flights and would offer compensation to passengers left in the lurch after it suspended operations at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports in the New York area and Boston Logan on Monday.

“We are back to normal operations,” Chief Operating Officer Rob Maruster said on Tuesday. “What is abnormal is the amount of displaced customers and trying to attempt to move as many of them as possible, particularly those that have been disrupted multiple times.”

Shares of JetBlue rose 0.2 percent to $8.68 on Tuesday after a 4 percent fall on Monday. Other carriers were mixed, with American Airlines off 0.5 percent to $26.91 and Delta down 1.7 percent to $28.78. Southwest rose about 2 percent to $19.53.

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