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Friday Could Be The Busiest Day in U.S. Airline History – Hopefully, A Fragile System Is Ready

American Airlines, like the rest of the country’s carriers, is headed into what could be the busiest day in the history of commercial air travel, leading a fragile, half technology miracle and half creaky old boat industry  that can either perform efficiency marvels or be upended by a thunderstorm in Dallas or Chicago or a computer glitch in Dayton, Ohio.

Friday could be the heaviest air travel day ever, David Pekoske, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday.

“We expect that this coming Friday will potentially be one of busiest days ever in TSA history, in terms of passenger throughput,” Pekoske told reporters, according to USA Today.

The TSA typically screens about 2.2 million passengers a day, but could top 2.6 million on Friday, Pekoske said. TSA’s one-day record is 2.71 million, set on Nov. 28, 2004. Second is 2.65 million on Nov. 19, 2004, and third is 2.64 million on June 30, 2017, the Friday preceding the Fourth of July last year – hence the high expectation for tomorrow.

 

U.S. airlines carried record 849 million passengers last year and expect a 3.7% increase this year, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, American’s second-largest hub, large crowds are expected this week, starting with 33,730 originating passengers today – not quite at the record 34,696 originating passengers on June 30, 2017.

Besides its originating passengers, Charlotte normally handles about 100,000 connecting passengers each day.

That looks easy on good days when American’s hub handles 674 daily departures, the third largest single airline hub operation in the world.

But the U.S. commercial aviation system is fragile, exposed to cramped airports, occasional security and maintenance delays, computer glitches and, most of all, to weather. Typically, during times of bad weather, air traffic controllers require more spacing between aircraft, which slows operations.

This month, American has been impacted by weather events and a computer glitch. At Chicago O’Hare on Tuesday,  weather cut back the arrival rate for all aircraft to 31 per hour, a bit less than a third of the normal rate, for most of the day. American canceled 41% of its flights.

During a single two-hour period one-day last week, American suffered from nearly 100 diversions at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport due to a summer storm.

In the week starting June 14, American cancelled about 2,800 flights, disrupting tens of thousands of customers mainly at Charlotte, because of a computer glitch impacting crew scheduling at its wholly owned, Dayton-based regional carrier PSA.

Additionally, over the past 30 days, among the 40 airlines tracked by FlightStats, American and two of its regionals, PSA and Envoy Air, led the industry in cancellations. PSA had 3,548; American had 1,657 and Envoy Air had 1,376. Spokesman Ross Feinstein said weather was responsible for nearly all of the cancellations not related to the PSA issue.

The fourth was Southwest with 1,374 cancellations, as well as an industry leading 28,952 delays.     “Unfortunately, we’ve also been experiencing severe convective weather and thunderstorms on a regular basis this summer near and around some of our largest cities of operation,” said Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish.

“The summer’s severe weather often creates congestion/delays, ATC-driven delay programs, and even requires us to cancel flights at times,” Parrish said. “Specifically, we’ve been challenged this summer with severe weather near Chicago Midway (where we operate our highest volume of flights per day), Baltimore and Denver– all three of these airports are major operational centers for us.”

In general, summer brings both stormy weather and high travel demand, which means high utilization of aircraft and crews. Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots, said Wednesday that high demand has led to occasional scheduling violations.

“American is scrambling for pilots,” said APA spokesman Dennis Tajer. “Network planning schedules flights six months out; then crew scheduling tries to staff them one month out.”

On Tuesday, APA’s contract compliance committee sent pilots an email message entitled, “A Summer Full of Continuous Reassignment Availability Periods.” The committee said it “has been inundated with reports from pilots feeling pressured by the company” to add flights that violate contract limitations as well as federal safety regulations regarding hours flown and scheduling.

American spokeswoman Leslie Mayo said, “We build crew sequences six weeks in advance, based on network planning that occurs a year out, taking into account crew staffing requirements.”

Meanwhile, in a June 12 message to flight attendants, Jill Surdek, American vice president of flight service, said the carrier has had to place about 300 more flight attendants on reserve so it will be better able to staff its heavy summer flight schedule. Being on reserve means a flight attendant must be available to work on short notice.

“The summer months are our busiest stretch of the year,” Surdek said. “Seasonal flying peaks in July – driving the need for both additional lineholders and reserves.

“We have to operate the airline at max capacity during months when our customers want to fly,” she said.

  • This story first appeared on Forbes

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