March 25, 2023

On the Road: Lean Airlines in Poor Shape to Handle Passenger Backlog

Besides the immediate effects of the storm, the airlines have cut so much that they have little ability to handle any extra strain. Fleets have been pared; employees laid off. In a system now flying with more than 80 percent of seats full, there’s no slack to handle a crush of desperate passengers looking to reschedule flights knocked off the board by a big storm.

“Right now we’re looking at tens of thousands of business travelers whose trips were interrupted, and who are stuck,” said Joseph Bates, the vice president for research at the Global Business Travel Association. The Eastern seaboard is “the busiest area of the United States in terms of business travel, and it’s essentially going to be shut down for two days.”

Expect large numbers of additional flight cancellations this week. The 7,300-plus cancellations counted Monday afternoon by the flight tracking service represented about a quarter of the 27,000 scheduled commercial flights on a typical weekday in the United States. As thousands of scrubbed flights pile up through the week, the likelihood for air travel chaos is high.

Basically, the best advice is this: Stay home this week. If you’re already en route and stranded, or if you have a ticket for air travel in the near future, consult airlines for the current storm-travel waiver policies. But good luck with that, because airlines long ago thinned staff at their call centers, and the Web sites were providing scant information on Monday, at least.

Generally, the airlines are waiving penalty fees, which are usually $150, for passengers who rebook after canceling a so-called nonrefundable reservation, or having one canceled. But the restrictions are tight.

“I’m hearing from business travelers who said they’re being rebooked, only to find that the rebooked flight is also canceled,” said Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of the subscription business travel site

“These are ridiculous travel waiver policies that are trying to force you into rebooking through a very narrow window,” he said.

Some airlines seemed to project a rather casual attitude about the crisis on their Web sites, it seemed to me. Even as scheduled flights were being canceled wholesale, the United Airlines advisory, for example, provided a list of what it referred to as “cities that may experience flight delays due to weather conditions.”

United’s policy on rebooking was typical. The change penalty and any extra charge for higher fares is waived, provided a passenger rebooks and begins the new trip by Nov. 7. On Delta, new travel has to be commenced by Sunday.

For the airlines themselves, one chief concern is keeping airplanes and crews out of the storm and in place to be rescheduled. “They saw this coming and knew it was going to be nasty, and they didn’t want the hardware on the ground,” said G. Bruce Hedlund, a recently retired American Airlines captain.

Once the storm abates, airlines will need to reposition planes and crews. “When the skies turn blue again, that doesn’t mean everything’s immediately fine. It takes another couple of days to get the crews and the jets to where they belong and bring the system back,” Mr. Hedlund said.

There’s also more dependence on part-time employees who can be scheduled ad hoc, meaning it’s going to be harder to get the system back quickly. “Now the computer says, ‘I don’t need you for eight hours; I need you at the peak,’ so it’s a part-time job tailoring the schedule for demand, and that adds complications,” he said.

In Orlando, Fla., the annual convention of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents the private jet industry, was getting under way on Monday, with questions on how many of the 25,000 people expected would actually get there.

“We haven’t heard from hotels that people are dropping reservations,” said Dan Hubbard, a spokesman for the group.

As the storm loomed, the Global Business Travel Association offered statistics extrapolated from past disruptions and found that in a major hurricane of one to two days’ duration on the East Coast, the total loss in business travel spending would be about $684 million, and 580,000 business trips would be disrupted.

Mr. Hedlund, the retired American Airlines captain, said that the math was simple as the storm raged and waned. “There are not any extra airplanes. There aren’t any extra crews. So you just wait till the rumbles die down, and the system recovers almost of its own natural accord.”


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You’re the Boss Blog: Preparing Small Businesses for the Next Disaster

The former home of Kraft Insurance Services in Joplin, Mo.Barbara TaylorThe former home of Kraft Insurance Services in Joplin, Mo.


Putting a price on business.

The gods must be crazy, or at the very least they seem extremely perturbed this year. Each season of 2011 has been one for the record books as far as weather events. Here in the state of Arkansas we had record cold and snowfall this winter, followed by historic flooding and tornado damage in the spring. In states throughout the south central United States, the Mississippi river went on a flooding rampage the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s. A tornado outbreak ripped across several states, with Alabama bearing the brunt. Texas and Oklahoma are still being oppressed by relentlessly hot temperatures, and now Irene has come barreling up the eastern seaboard. Dare I ask what’s next?

While I confess to knowing nothing about climate change, I do know that — for those of us who own small businesses — the beat must go on, if not during a disaster than as soon as possible thereafter. Yet few of us seem to have a plan in place for our businesses should disaster strike. Even as I write this blog post, I am aware that — other than storing all of my office files, data and e-mail in the cloud — there isn’t much to my own disaster preparedness beyond Google Apps and a flashlight.

I have little excuse after what happened just 45 minutes to the north of me in Joplin, Mo., just three months ago. On Sunday, May 22, Joplin was hit by an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado. It was the deadliest tornado to hit the United States in decades and could be one of the most expensive, with some estimating the cost to rebuild Joplin topping out at $3 billion.

The urge to drive up to Joplin within hours of the tornado was overwhelming for those of us in neighboring cities who wanted to help, but we were warned not to “self deploy” until formal relief efforts had been completed. It was about two weeks later that my husband and I made a trip north to check on a friend’s property. While we were there, we paid a visit to the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce where we were introduced to Randy and Shelly Kraft.

The Krafts have been Joplin residents since 1986. They established Kraft Insurance Services — an independent brokerage serving 8,000 customers in 11 states — in 1989. Their building was located just four blocks east of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in the hardest-hit part of town. “I couldn’t get within about three miles of the building,” Randy recalled of those first hours after the tornado. The streets were unrecognizable. Miraculously, about 50 percent of the Kraft Insurance building was left standing. According to Shelly, their thoughts turned immediately to their customers. “We knew they would be calling like crazy on Monday morning,” she said.

Four of the Krafts’ 13 employees showed up for work the morning after the tornado; the rest were back within a week, with several able to work remotely from home. The business — its servers undamaged — ran off of generators and cellphones for the first few days. On the fourth day, the Krafts relocated their office and call center to a banquet room at a Holiday Inn.

“We didn’t physically have a building,” said Shelly, “but Kraft Insurance was still a functional business. Many of our insurance companies provided us with basic office supplies and necessities.” It was a Progressive sales rep who helped them relocate to the temporary Holiday Inn space. While the offers of support were overwhelming, Shelly remembers having difficulty accepting them. “People are offering because they want to help,” she said. Her advice to other business owners: “Let them!”

The Krafts’ customers also rallied support. A construction company put a tarp over the roof of the Kraft building and made minor repairs to help minimize water damage during the  storms that pummeled Joplin for days after the tornado. Another customer arranged for the Krafts to rent 3,200 square feet of office space until they finish repairs on their building, which they estimate will be completed within a year.

One of the challenges for Kraft Insurance was that — while 30 percent of Joplin was decimated — the rest of the city and Kraft’s out-of-state customers were not. “Those people were still buying cars and new homes. Many construction workers were coming into town needing to be bonded and insured. Regular business had to go on,” Shelly said. “We divided our staff: Some took new business while others took claims.”

I asked Shelly if the tornado had changed any of her advice about insurance. “We believe strongly in replacement cost policies, where the insurance company will pay you the replacement cost of your property instead of the actual cash value,” she said. “If one of our insureds owns a house with a market value of $50,000 and a replacement value of $120,000, we recommend that it is in their best interest to pay for the replacement cost policy.” This advice won the Krafts “many hugs” from their customers, many of whom lost everything on May 22.

Ironically, the Krafts had started working on a disaster plan before the tornado, but never completed it. Given the extent of what happened, Randy expressed doubts that the plan would have been adequate. Even their flashlights weren’t really prepared. “We had them,” Shelly said, “but none seemed to have very good batteries in them.”

What about you? Do you have a disaster plan in place for your business?

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Shelly Kraft’s first name.

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