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Weather is a major traffic disruptor for airlines, crew and passengers. When a big storm is on the way, how does American Airlines prepare to cancel flights? The question is timely, as a storm is bearing down upon a large swath of the US before a holiday weekend.

I recently spoke with Scott Ramsay, Managing Director of American Airlines’ dispatch center in Dallas. Ramsay leads a team in charge of dispatch for the entire American Airlines network—from Sydney to London and everywhere in between. Needless to say, he’s a busy camper.

ARLINGTON VA, JANUARY 22: An American Airlines jet prepares to depart at Reagan Washington National Airport just as the storm begins in Arlington VA, January 22, 2016. (Photo by John McDonnell / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
An American Airlines 737-800 prepares to depart at Reagan Washington National Airport just as a storm begins on January 22, 2016. (Photo by John McDonnell / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the case of a recent storm, the forecast 48 hours in advance was for three to five inches of snow, overnight. (Spoiler alert: that changed progressively over the period; 10 inches of wet snow eventually fell.) “Around 48 hours in advance of a potential event, we’ll take a look to see how this will impact our operations,” Ramsay said, noting that on any given day American will handle thousands of flights just for the mainline carrier alone.

“It can be tricky, as people need to be re-accommodated and you don’t want to re-accommodate people on a flight that then later gets cancelled,” Ramsay said. “And also, sometimes the forecast indicates an issue beginning, say, at 2pm. We will then cancel flights, but the weather event doesn’t actually impact until 6pm. The longer you can wait, generally the better it is,” he said.

I asked Ramsay if the cancellation decisions were made with a view to saving the airline money.

“No, it’s more about the passengers,” he said, without missing a beat. “We don’t want to strand anyone, because nobody appreciates that, be it passengers or crew.”

Closing In

Between 12 to 24 hours before an impending storm, Ramsay said, he will assemble his regional staff to create what American calls “cancellation packages”—essentially a contingency plan of orderly, planned cancellations.

Once the call to cancel is made, American’s computer systems will kick in, offering re-accommodation to customers by email or mobile alert. (I’ve experienced this with American and other airlines, and the process is seamless.)

“Our ideal is to cancel and send the alert before the customer leaves the home,” he said. The airline tries to be three hours ahead at all times, but the weather may have other plans that disrupt operations.

The cancelled aircraft will hang out where they are, in most circumstances; there’s no additional service to a different city pair that could be added at the last minute.

Track Your Airplane

Savvy passengers will track their aircraft and not just their flight. Tools such as FlightAware show you where your aircraft is, which allows you to adjust your travel to the airport, for example. Recently, LGA dealt with delays inbound and outbound due to high winds on the east coast. This type of delay has an impact on all connecting flights down the line. What happens to a passenger in Charlotte waiting to go to LGA on the last flight out? For example, imagine a scenario where their plane is still in Boston, waiting to depart to LGA before then proceeding to Charlotte?

The airline still tries to deliver.

An American Airlines spokesperson said that the airline will run late through to LGA. In this case, there’s a good chance our Charlotte passenger will get to LGA, albeit late. “The exception would be if we run out of crew time and for some reason we are not able to re-crew with a reserve crew,” he said.

Why the Impact Is Worse Today

Ramsay has lead dispatch operations at American for five years, but worked in and around the industry for the past 25. He says that nowadays, the impact of storms is greater than at anytime in his career. The reason? Full planes.

“20 years ago, load factors were quite a bit lower. If we needed to cancel a flight, it was an easier decision as we could re-accommodate passengers the next day. Now with load factors 80% and higher, you’re trying to figure out how to avoid strapping passengers to the topside of the wing.”

Eye On the Competition?

In the case of cancellations, it may seem like the airlines coordinate their actions. That isn’t the case, Ramsay said.

“We have to be comfortable with our own decisions. And the factors differ depending on the day and the operation. We might have no aircraft at ORD that are out of service, and therefore if we can squeeze in a few flights we will. A competitor might have airplanes that are not in service, so that will impact their bank”, referring to the coordinated inbound aircraft feeding a hub.

Top Five Pain Points

Which weather phenomena causes the most headache for the dispatch team? Ramsay listed his top five.

Snow

Surprisingly, snowstorms are the least (comparatively) of Ramsay’s worries. “Snow storms are predictable, and give you plenty of advance warning,” he said. He noted that different amounts of snow will affect different cities, however, explaining that three to five inches of snow at IAD would be dramatically different at ORD, which is more used to these winter dumps.

Fog

Fog is a challenge not just for landing and departing, but for safe aircraft and equipments movements on the ramp. Extra spacing is required to separate aircraft landing and departing, which in itself will cause delays. Pilots of commercial aircraft can land with 150 feet of runway visual range ahead using an instrument landing system—but not all aircraft are equipped to make these approaches.

Thunderstorms and Lightning

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 18: Lightning flashes behind an air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport on August 18, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Thunderstorms swept across the area on Sunday prompting the National Weather Service to issue multiple severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Lightning flashes behind an air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport on August 18, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“There can be lightning without thunderstorms, and thunderstorms build and dissipate quickly, so they are harder to predict,” he said, noting that lightning within five miles of the field causes a ground stop. Those ground stops may only delay operations for a few hours, but the impact on the airline’s bank of inbound aircraft can be great.

Surprise Hit: Hail

Hail is the number one challenge for Ramsay. “There’s no advance warning, and hail storms can quickly trash an airplane,” he said. He explained that hail storms are hard to predict and the size of the hail is an unknown until it falls.

Ramsay said that an airline will have to perform a hail inspection done on each aircraft that’s borne the brunt of a storm. To avoid this, airlines will have aircraft divert, which offers its own special challenges, with equipment not being in the place it’s supposed to be.

However, that’s better than the alternative: “We don’t like to have airplanes with dimples.”

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Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot.

Featured image of a Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 2013. by Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

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