Travel Maze: Playing Airline Russian Roulette


Taking an airline flight will usually get you from point A to point B-- except when your flight is cancelled.

For example, for if you are a business travelor attempting to get from New York to Boston on Delta Airlines Flight 1392, you may want to consider this:

According to the Federal Bureau of Transportation, in 2009 the daily 5:30 p.m. flight from New York's LaGuardia airport to Boston's Logan Airport was cancelled 16.6% of the time.

Cancelled flights unfortunately are part of the hassle of flying, and any frequent traveler is bound to encounter the situation. Much to the chagrin of the traveler, a cancelled flight can mar travel plans.

Wondering if you can be proactive about it? Travelers can study the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to attempt to put the odds in their favor. You can even study individual cancellation records by airline at specific airports and drill down to a specific flight you might be taking. The numbers do not vary significantly overall among airlines, but in 2009 you had the best chance of avoiding a cancelled flight if you flew with Continental.

The airline cancelled 0.53 percent of its flights in 2009, according to the Federal Statistics, lower than any other carrier. That was followed by Southwest with 0.76 percent, Delta with 1.12 percent, US Airways with 1.24 percent, Jet Blue with 1.35 percent, America with 1.68 percent and United with 1.69 percent. From these statistics, you can see a more clear picture of your odds of taking off, but the overall statistics don't reveal the troubles of the individual flights.

Airlines have their own personalities, says consultant Scott Nason, a former American Airlines vice-president who ran the airlines operation center. Nason says some carriers are more intent than others in making sure their flights get off the ground.

According to Nason, JetBlue had made that goal a top priority in the first few years of operation. "They had taken the philosophy to the extreme that they weren't going to cancel a flight," he said.

Nason said things abruptly changed after severe winter weather on Valentine's Day, 2007 causing a service meltdown at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

You may remember that this particular meltdown resulted in JetBlue passengers being left stuck on planes for as long as 10 hours. Nason said that as a result JetBlue became a little less aggressive in its intent to get every plane in the sky.

The federal statistics tell the story. JetBlue's cancellation record of 1.35 percent in 2009 was almost three times its record in 2006 when 0.46 percent of flights didn't take off.

But cancellations can vary greatly depending on the airport, and there are always those problem flights, like 1392 from New York's LaGuardia to Boston.

LaGuardia, the closest airport to Manhattan, has problems with cancellations in general because of limited runways and airport traffic control backups in the crowded New York area skies, says Nason.

Delta cancelled 4.91 percent of its flights from LaGuardia in 2009 compared to the 3.98 average of all airlines operating out of the airport, according to Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Those statistics show that JetBlue cancelled flights only 2.33 percent, but it only operates a limited number of flights from LaGuardia.

At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, however, JetBlue had more cancellations percentage wise than Delta in 2009, 1.70 percent for JetBlue compared to 1.26 percent for Delta.

Contrary to popular belief, airlines do not intentionally cancel flights when they have too few passengers on a particular flight, says Nason.

"It's somewhat of a misnomer," he said. "Generally the advantage of canceling a flight is far too little."

What's more, he says that logistical issues that arise with crews being displaced and not arriving in another city for their next flight can create havoc for an airline.

Still, Nason believes that cancellations are a fact of life, particularly when weather causes problems with the air traffic control system. Sometimes, Nason says, airlines start canceling flights to get ahead of themselves and prevent delays from invading their entire fight schedule. This is particularly the case, he says, in airline hub cities where passengers connect to other planes.

Some airlines even choose to cancel flights ahead of potentially bad weather, and do not even wait to see if the weather event occurs.

Delta's director of flight operations control told the in early February that it was canceling flights in advance of a potential winter snowstorm, as part of a new strategy to give travelers more choice.

"One thing we have learned regarding storms and their impact is that it makes a huge difference to passengers if we can keep them out of the travel stream, out of the long airport lines we had in the '80s and '90's," said Dave Holtz, a 31-year Delta veteran who oversees flights as director of operations control.

Nason said American Airlines had adopted the approach just implemented by Delta 20 years ago.

But passengers who suspect their flight is being cancelled because there are a few passengers on them aren't entirely far from the truth.

Nason said when airlines do cancel flights they try and pick flights that have as few passengers as possible to lessen the impact of the cancellation. He said they also attempt to reroute passengers to another flight departing close to the cancelled flight, so passengers aren't stuck in the airport for hours.

But rerouting passengers is getting harder, says Nason, because as airlines have cut capacity within the last few years, the number of available seats has been reduced.

He said airlines are now flying on average at 85 percent capacity compared to the 70 percent just a few years ago.

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to avoid being a casualty of a canceled flight.

If a traveler were to look at flight 1392's dismal track record between New York and Boston, he or she might figure they would be better off taking another airline.

For example, JetBlue's flight 1804 departs from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Boston's Logan Airport at 5:20 p.m. That flight was cancelled 4.09 % of the time compared to Delta flight 1392's 16.6 percent record.

But here's the rub: Delta has hourly shuttle flights to Boston. So chances are if flight 1392 doesn't take off, the traveler will get another flight within a couple of hours, assuming of course that there are seats.

However, if JetBlue's 5:20 p.m. flight is cancelled, which happened on 14 days in 2009, the next JetBlue flight to Boston is at 10:40 p.m. And if there are no seats on that flight, the traveler might not get to Boston until the next day.

So you can play the statistics game when it comes to airline cancellations, but the odds won't always be in your favor.