But there's a whole empty plane here!
January 3, 2014 2:28 PM   Subscribe

So, a general question based on an anecdote. Yesterday we were supposed to fly from Tampa to Chicago Midway. Because Midway was crazy, we left really late and eventually got diverted to Memphis. A few hours later, our flight was cancelled due to a (fixable, but not at midnight) mechanical problem, and now Southwest has to figure out how to get 143 people to Chicago. So...why not just put them on that same airplane tomorrow when it's fixed?

All of today's flights from Memphis to Chicago were sold out, and Southwest only offers a handful of other outbound flights from MEM, so it's not like you are rebooking 140 people on those. BUT: now there is this extra plane sitting around! Couldn't they just...put all those people back on the plane tomorrow and send it home? Presumably the airplane needs to get there anyway. (We ended up renting a car and driving home from Memphis, but not everyone has the wherewithal to do that, plus lots of people were connecting through Midway.)

Obviously there were a lot of Midway-specific problems this week, but I am looking for more general answers to these questions:

1. I'm sure there's an FAA regulation that explains why a commercial airline can't run an unscheduled flight, but what is it, and what does it say? (And why wouldn't they just "delay" the flight overnight instead of cancelling? Is that a thing?)

2. What on earth did they DO with all those people?! I used to fly little United Express planes from Chicago to Green Bay a lot, and they'd just stick us on a bus, but that has to be harder to do with 143 people (not to mention an 8-hour drive). Do people really just hang around Memphis for days and days waiting for a flight?
posted by goodbyewaffles to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total)
My guess is that one of the factors involves crew. Their schedules are micromanaged by the FAA, and taking a flight out of service probably creates havoc with their crew scheduling.
posted by colin_l at 2:38 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

So...why not just put them on that same airplane tomorrow when it's fixed?

Because that plane and the plane's crew was already scheduled to take some people after your flight to some other destination. The airline would rather delay you longer and ensure that other people stay on schedule than "offset" everyone. There are many FAA and airline regulations about how to handle delayed passengers. However, the regulations are written such that the airline would rather have few people who are delayed a very long time than many people who are delayed a relatively short time.

Further, the airline would rather make as few modifications to passenger itineraries as possible. Each modification incurs the risk of the passenger rejecting the change; an airline can't unilaterally modify a future passenger's itinerary to benefit a current passenger's itinerary. Finally, people tend to be annoyed by being delayed at all more than the length of the delay so there's a benefit in minimizing the number of people delayed.

I'm sure there's an FAA regulation that explains why a commercial airline can't run an unscheduled flight

I'm not familiar with such a regulation, but as a practical matter, airlines don't have "extra" planes. They will almost definitely have extra capacity that they can take advantage of to get passengers where they want to go - if they have 10 90% full flights that get vaguely where the passengers of your flight are going, they can get everyone where they want to go without an extra flight. However, extra planes are a large expense because the extra planes need to be housed and, in general, maintained to the same level as active planes. So, airlines don't keep them around.

Do people really just hang around Memphis for days and days waiting for a flight?

You'd be surprised at how many people will simply "disappear" and take other modes of transit. Business travelers, in particular, may decline to pursue the trip than wait around for a flight.

Some number of people on your flight are not actually going to Chicago. For those people, the airline will reroute them in some way that gets them to their destination (just not through Chicago). For the people that are going to Chicago, take all the available seats on the next few flights that go to Chicago and book them for the passengers that are delayed. If there are one-stop routes to Chicago, book them for the passengers that are delayed. If there simply isn't any availability, cancel the trip and give them a bus back to Tampa. If the passenger complains a lot and happens to have status with the airline, possibly book them on another airline (this doesn't happen very often).

Although this is somewhat cynical, the airline isn't actually obligated to get you where you want to go; they're obligated to eventually get you to where you want to go or give you your money back. The airline will take advantage of the latter option if it becomes necessary.
posted by saeculorum at 2:43 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the airline could have sent the flight at any time that it had the resources and the airports had openings to take off and land, so I don't think "FAA scheduling" was the problem.

Crews have incredibly inflexible rest requirements, for one thing. A friend went on a charter plane to a football game (he's in a different tax bracket than I am) and told me about this example:

Another passenger had a medical emergency, and when the plane landed (at its expected time and place; no diversion or delay in landing) the crew had to assist with that situation. Unfortunately this passenger died, and probably the crew had to talk to police, etc. about it. The takeoff after the game was delayed by the length of time the crew was involved in all this, rather than resting, as they were scheduled to do.

More typically to an airline situation, they may have taken the plane (once repaired) and/or crew and used it to plug ANOTHER hole in the schedule created by another snafu, or simply, as stated above, moved on to its next scheduled flight.

As to your second question, they may have indeed chartered buses for 143 people to take them 8 hours by bus, or more likely they offered them motel rooms and invited them to make new lives for themselves until transportation could otherwise be arranged. People have wound up on the taxiways for hours on end, after all. This is why I hate to fly...
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:47 PM on January 3, 2014

Oh, I've had my flight cancelled going through Chicago so I can actually tell you. First realize that "All these people" to you is pretty much nothing to a major airline running through a major hub like Chicago. Like 140 people is a drop in the bucket compared to the sheer volume of humanity they're pushing through there.

So first, there is a mad scramble for everyone to go to the customer service desk (or if you're smart and lucky you can find an open gate that's not too busy and convince them to re-book you there). Then everyone stands in line while futzing with their phones and trying to get through to customer service to rebook that way.

Anyway, the usual order of operations when you get to someone who can help you is something like:

1. If you're flexible, they'll put you on a flight for the next day and maybe cover your hotel room for the night and give you some goodies or credits
2. If you're one of the first through and they have openings, they'll put you on one of the later flights going out
3. If you're flexible but not THAT flexible and they can swing it, they'll do some routing shenanigans and you might spend a lot of time on a plane but they'll get you home after 2-3 stops
4. If there are spots on a partner airline, they'll try and put you on that
5. If there are sports on any other airline, they'll try and put you on that
6. If you are well and truly hosed, they'll put you up in a hotel and try to get you out on one of the above options over the next few days, which usually depends on what time of year it is, e.g. if you're traveling to Dubuque in the middle of April you'll probably get out the next day, if you're traveling to Newark on Super Bowl Sunday well good luck with that
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:10 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

So...why not just put them on that same airplane tomorrow when it's fixed?

I don't know how unusual it was, but as a bit of anecdata, a few years ago my late-afternoon UA flight from ORD to LHR was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties and re-scheduled for the following morning. (Most lined up for the hotel voucher; I went home and slept in my own bed.)

For what reason I don't know, the next-morning flight was not shown on the departure boards.

So there's that.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:25 PM on January 3, 2014

Speaking to the point above about how many of the people going to Chicago are not really going to Chicago - I had this exact thing happen! I was attempting to fly from LA to Boston through Chicago, but my Chicago flight was cancelled. I had to wait in a long line to get to talk to the gate agent, but when I told her I didn't want to go to Chicago and was there any chance she could get me and my hand luggage on the flight to Boston that was leaving in 45 minutes, she was very happy to oblige me.
posted by mskyle at 4:07 PM on January 3, 2014

2. What on earth did they DO with all those people?!

Speaking from fairly recent (2009) personal experience - nothing.

Which is to say, they'll make an effort to get you to your destination - they'll fill up all possible seats on the next flights, which may include some re-routing, they'll offer people discounts and credits if they're willing to give up their seats to stranded passengers, from what I could tell there was some cooperation between different airlines trading passengers back & forth (this may have been exceptional circumstances - it was Christmas, major storms had hammered pretty much every US & Canadian airport north of Atlanta AND the whole UK AND northern Europe and travel was all kinds of FUBARed.)

But what you did with yourself between your cancelled flight and the next one you could get on was your responsibility. There were definitely people sleeping in the airport for more than one night.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:14 PM on January 3, 2014

Yeah there is no "extra plane sitting around". Sometimes it could feasibly happen the way you're describing, but usually the airline has it scheduled to pick up where it left off. They try to keep it all moving pretty quickly, and the average airplane traveler would be shocked to know how often planes break, and how quickly they can be repaired.
(anecdata: my husband is a flight attendant)
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:26 PM on January 3, 2014

As Short Attention Sp alluded to, the "we'll try again tomorrow" approach is really only commonly used by airlines for long-haul international flights that run into trouble. If the hundreds of people on an A380 or a 747 are stranded somewhere, especially an unusual diversion airport that the airline doesn't normally serve, they'll usually either fix the aircraft and try again the next day (after required crew rest) or find another replacement aircraft somewhere (if the fix is uncertain or unavailable) and fly it out there to pick everyone up. In the US domestic network, there's more flexibility and fewer passengers, and they generally prefer to cancel the flight and figure it out pasenger-by-passenger based on their final destination and preferences.
posted by zachlipton at 12:08 AM on January 4, 2014

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