Massive Flight Cancellations

29 Jun 2007

Flight cancellations are never fun, but when they force over a dozen other people’s plans to change, a canceled flight can spell real trouble for a business traveler. When I arrived at the airport on Sunday (2007/06/24) to board my flight (BOI to MSP to BWI) with Northwest Airlines, I was told that the flight from MSP to BWI had been canceled. After 25 minutes of searching for alternatives, the soonest available flight was on Northwest the next morning but wouldn’t get me into BWI until 1:44pm. After consulting with my boss, I had them “book” me on that flight. At this point, there were several people at the counter all experiencing the same joy-of-re-booking as I.

It was obvious that there were a lot of cancellations on Northwest. Fearing that my newly re-booked flight might also be canceled, I asked if this was a likely possibility. “We have no reason to think that there will be any cancellations tomorrow,” was the response. Not quite fully reassured, I prompted them for details about the cancellations. Over 300 Northwest flights had been canceled so far that day (it was not yet 1pm MDT) due to “Lack of crew availability” (which they read directly from their screen concerning my flight, and others’ around me). I asked why they had such large crew shortages. “Because of the weather on the east coast; so many flights out of there had to be cancelled that we now haven’t got crews where they need to be. All flights out of MSP that head east are cancelled for today at this point.” I hadn’t heard about any serious weather, but I hadn’t really been looking in the past few days either.

Then the next problem hit. They were unable to print anything, it seems. They couldn’t print boarding passes for people who were going to be flying, they couldn’t print an itinerary for me (or other people, either). Finally, they hand wrote my flight numbers and departure times and gave that to me on a scrap of paper. While they were working that out, I called my ride (I had been dropped at the Boise airport this time) to get them turned around to come back and get me. While waiting for my ride to return, I made a couple of other calls to people who needed to know that I would not be there to start my class Monday morning.

After returning to the house, I phoned the hotel and rental car agency to push my reservations back for the next day. The hotel was no trouble at all, and I even got the 1 night refunded without any hassles (Marriott properties are great that way). But the rental car agency said that the price for changing my reservation would be an additional $200 for the (less than a) week. I phoned Expedia Corporate Travel, which had been used to book the trip in the first place. That’s when things really came apart.

Expedia’s agent was able to help me reschedule the rental car with Hertz (my first ever time renting from them, but I’m 100% convinced that they are the best now), which turned out to be a few dollars cheaper than the other alternatives now, though the price still did go up. They also double-checked with the hotel for me and things were fine there, but there were problems with the flights. Mainly, their systems now showed that I didn’t have any. They phoned the airline and called me back a couple of times and eventually got us all on a conference call together, where the airline representative told me that my flights were not canceled, that they were almost no flights canceled anywhere and that my flight was about to land at BWI. She also said that their system did not indicate that I was booked for the new Monday flights but that they showed that I had never shown up at the airport at all. This despite the fact that the BIO counter and kisok systems both had pulled up my information, which I pointed out and she said that their systems did, indeed, log such lookups and there were no entries showing that I had been there. I asked if they had any data about anyone being queried from Boise today, which she “couldn’t answer”. She tried to make sound like she couldn’t perform a query to find out, but it really sounded like she knew that I was right and their systems were currently partitioned. In any case, that was the triger that got her to lock me in for the next flight (the one the counter agents at BOI had given me) despite the fact that she had told me earlier in the conversation there were no seats available at all.

After all that conversation (which took about 25 minutes) it looked like I was solidly set to travel Monday morning. Still, Expedia’s computers couldn’t see the flights. After a few minutes asking the Expedia rep some questions, I ascertained that the flights were booked (originally) through Delta Airlines‘s systems despite the fact that every single leg was with Northwest. So, I called the special Medalion Members only service line (gotta love some of the perks) and they were able to reconnect the dots, though they were very perplexed that Expedia had booked the flights through them to begin with.

But just for my own sanity, I spoke with the counter agents at both BOI and BWI on Monday. They both said that the flights had been canceled. When the agent in Boise looked up the flight I had been originally scheduled on, that system showed that it had been canceled and still showed the same reason. The same occured at the ticket counter in BWI. This left me feeling like Northwest’s “customer service” center wasn’t really trying to serve the customer but instead trying to cover up the whole thing.

Then, on Tuesday morning as I left my hotel room to head for the classroom I was teaching at, I had a copy of USA Today outside my door. I picked it up but didn’t look at it until lunch. The topmost story on the Money section for Tuesday, June 26, 2007 was titled “Northwest’s flight cancellations surge“. Basically, Northwest’s management is blaming weather from several days earlier for canceling 14.2% of their flights on Sunday alone. Their pilots are blaming it on bad planning by management.

It looks like Northwest is burning all of their pilot’s legal limit of flight hours (some on activies other than flying) so quickly that they can’t fly them towards the end of each month. In addition, Northwest’s management has reportedly refused to rehire furlowed pilots, despite the fact that they know there is heavier demand coming. The USA Today article goes into a little more detail regarding the situation.

The long and the short of it is, if you travel much, I would recommend avoiding Northwest flights in the last 7-10 days of the month, for now. We’ll see if management gets it together in the next couple of months or not. Until then, I know I’ll do my best to avoid a repeat.

BTW: I normally fly out of SLC, but am visiting family in Weiser, Idaho for three weeks centered around the 4th of July holiday. did check and found that I would have had the exact same experience if I had been flying out of SLC, as there were no flights available on Delta either (those Medalion Member Service Center folks are very helpful and answer all sorts of questions). Apparently, due to Northwest’s high cancellation rates over the whole weekend, all the other airlines seats had been filled as Northwest moved them to other flights and Delta’s had all been filled the day before.