Over the past weekend (Feb.17/18), my wife and I went through airline/airport hell during the latter half of our trip home from a wonderful vacation in Arizona. While we didn’t mind the extra four hours in the sunny Southwest due to weather-related flight delays in and out of Chicago, the second half of the trip was quite the nightmare. Trying to sleep on cots in O’Hare Airport while announcements blared all night long, cancellation of our morning flight to home from Chicago, even though weather was fine at our destination, and the lack of alternative flight options for two days, left us with no other choice than to rent a vehicle and drive home. As it turned out, another snowstorm would end up causing those Wednesday flights that the airline wanted to rebook us on, to be cancelled, as well.
Frankly, how a mere 3-4 inches of snow can throw one of the nation’s busiest airports into disarray is beyond me. It’s not like snow is unheard of in Chicago. But stats don’t lie. According to weather.com, for the ten-year period between September 2008 and August 2018, Chicago O’Hare had more weather-related delays than any other airport in the country – a whopping 303,526 flights in a decade! These numbers beg the obvious question – why should airlines continue to use O’Hare as such a major hub? If weather patterns cause so many delays and/or cancellations, why not use Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Minneapolis-St. Paul as your airline’s hub instead of consistently weather impacted Chicago O’Hare?
Personally, I don’t buy the argument that snow alone causes so many cancellations. Delays, yes, but not cancellations. If that were the case, then how come Alaska Airlines can fly in all kinds of messy weather and to/from snow-covered airports throughout their long winter? Same is true with Air Canada and other northern airlines.
So, what’s the rub with cancelling our flight when numerous other flights are leaving (perhaps later than planned) and when the weather was perfectly fine with dry runways at our destination? It almost seems like the small snowfall is being used as a convenient excuse to cancel the flight because our market doesn’t produce enough value (money) for the airline. If that’s the case, then shame on them, especially when during the summer tourist season, our hometown (which is a very popular summer tourist destination) makes the airlines a crap-ton of money.
For the hub and spoke system to work, both parts of the system need to operate effectively, not just the hub. Where the hell do the airlines think many, if not most, of the passengers come from? It’s the small and mid-sized air travel markets (a.k.a. the spokes) that feed into the hub, not vice-versa. If such a network is to be successful, both parts must be served effectively. A robust and equitable air traffic system shouldn’t expect passengers in small and mid-sized markets to drive multitudes of hours in lieu of reliable air service, nor to wait for days to get home by air.
For small and mid-sized markets, this issue of cancelled flights is not just an inconvenience, it is also a potential economic disaster. What corporate executive in their right mind is going to recommend a business relocation or expansion to/in a market with unreliable air service? For small and mid-sized markets to remain competitive, economically vibrant, and thrive; consistent, reliable, and regular air service is necessary. Unfortunately, the pool of potential airline candidates to serve a given airport has become more and more limited by mergers and acquisitions. In addition, there are few, if any new start-ups. This leaves communities begging for air service or attempting incentivize the service through various forms of corporate welfare.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I miss the days when there were dozens of airlines competing for my business and passengers were not treated like cattle. The graveyard of former airline banners sounds like a who’s who of aviation (partial list):
Hughes Air West
Hopefully, some enterprising folks with solid financial backing will start new and successful air carriers as those folks did who began Southwest and Jet Blue. But, even more important is that any carrier (existing or future) must remember to treat the passenger and the markets they serve, with respect. Is that really too much to ask?