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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Editor's Note: Frankenstorm

Hurricane, super storm, mega storm, perfect storm, and my favorite, Frankenstorm.

All were used to describe the weather event that barreled up the Eastern seaboard of the United States the weekend of Oct. 27, cancelling thousands of flights and closing down some of the nation’s largest airports for days.

Hype aside, it was a huge, unprecedented storm that impacted a third of this country and devastated chunks of New York and New Jersey. Sandy closed 15 airports in the northeast, including all three that service New York City. A glimpse on the travel disruptions: Delta Air Lines cancelled more than 3,500 flights in October, which caused a 2 percent system capacity reduction versus prior year. JetBlue, which has its home base in New York, cancelled 1,484 flights in October due to Hurricane Sandy. The ripple effects of this storm on the aviation industry could be felt around the world, with canceled and delayed flights causing back-ups seemingly everywhere. All airports had reopened by Nov. 1, and airlines had returned to a mostly typical schedule within a few days. This traveler opted to miss the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) conference in Orlando, Fla., instead of getting stranded post-Sandy. And from talking to attendees who were there, I wasn’t the only one; traffic at the show was down about 10 percent over last year.

But the impacts of this storm on the relatively fragile aviation industry could be felt for weeks, or even months. Reports put the storm’s cost to the airlines at up to $200 million or more in lost revenue from canceled flights and expenses involved in re-starting operations. Delta said it expected a $45 million reduction in revenue and a $20 million hit on net income because of the storm; other airlines expressed similar revenue cuts as well.

I took to social media to see if I could find some Sandy-travel horror stories to share. I truly expected some hideous, ugly stories of rude ticket agents, overbooked flights, overnight stays in terminals, and worse. But I was pleasantly surprised by patience and understanding of travelers, airline personnel and airport employees. (Full disclosure: I can’t promise that if I has been stuck in Orlando that I would have the same poise. I’d like to think so, but …)

A public relations colleague of mine in New York on Facebook shared the following story: “American Airlines customer service representative, rebooking our flights because LaGuardia is, like, you know, under water: ‘I’ve been working 12-hour days for the last week and you’re the first person in hundreds who has been understanding about the situation. So although this is weather related and we’re not required to do this I’m sending you travel vouchers.’ Did I mention that LaGuardia is UNDER WATER? Who would NOT be understanding of that? Are people that out to lunch, self-absorbed or infected with a sense of entitlement?”

I’m sure there were lots and lots of frustrated travelers and overworked airline personnel who took it out on each other, but in my very, very limited data sample, I heard only success stories involving a half dozen major international airlines.

By all accounts, despite the historic weather event, the system worked. Text messages went out to passengers alerting of flight cancellations and delays. Flights were grounded for safety, airplanes were moved to avoid damage, and at least with regards to aviation, no one was hurt. And that’s pretty amazing considering the scope and magnitude of this storm.

It will be interesting to see how the airlines recover financially from this storm. What’s to come? More baggage fees? Fewer flights? I won’t speculate on that, and we’ll leave those unhappy headlines for a later date. For now, I’d like to congratulate the global airline industry for their handling of Frankenstorm Sandy.

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