How do winter weather and snowstorms affect airlines?
- Airports only allow aircraft to take off and land at a set rate. A storm reduces the number of aircraft that can take off and land, sometimes shutting down airport operations altogether.
- Everything moves more slowly in a storm. At an airport visibility is lower and at certain points activity stops altogether so runways, taxiways and the gates where aircraft park can be plowed to keep them clear of snow
- De-icing requirements can also delay departures and contribute to congestion. In snowy conditions, aircraft are required to have “clean” wings and other critical surfaces for take-off. Once sprayed, the aircraft has a limited time to take-off as, for safety reasons, the de-icing fluid is deemed effective for only a specified period. If there is a further delay for take-off, the aircraft may be required to return to the de-icing facility to be sprayed again and may even need to re-fuel.
- Airports have a finite number of gates for arriving and departing flights and this limits how many aircraft can park to load and unload passengers at a given time. If an aircraft can’t leave its gate to take off, other aircraft cannot use that gate to unload passengers. This creates congestion or gridlock. Gate assignments are planned well in advance but extensive delays can invalidate the schedule and require it to be reconstructed, again causing further delay.
What preparations are made for a storm?
- We closely monitor the weather and when we see a storm is coming we act in advance. First, we notify customers directly if we have contact information, or reach out through advisories, email, social media and traditional media to alert them. Usually 24 hours beforehand we will post a Travel Advisory on the homepage of our website
- We put in place a flexible rebooking policy -- this lets people change flights at no charge. The aim is to get people to either advance or defer their travel. It means we have fewer passengers to carry the day of the storm and it frees up seats for those customers who elect to travel but whose original flights might be cancelled.
- We also reduce our schedule by cancelling or consolidating flights because in a storm an airport cannot handle all the flights we originally planned to operate. The idea is that where normally we might fly 100 flights in a day from the airport, we may only be given enough take-off slots to fly 75 -- so we selectively use those slots to move as many people as possible.
- We cancel flights ahead of time and move passengers onto other flights that we expect will still fly. Where we can, we will fly one large aircraft where normally we might have two smaller ones; or we might consolidate two flights going to the same destination that day if neither is very full.
- In deciding what flight operates and which are cancelled, priority goes to those flights with many connecting customers, large international flights and sun destinations (we know people want to go on holiday, and sometimes we may only have one flight a week to a Caribbean Island) and those with customers going on cruises who must reach their ships before they sail.
How does Air Canada operate during a storm?
- Safety is always our top priority and Air Canada will curtail its operations and cancel flights if we believe safety will otherwise be compromised. While modern technology allows airlines to fly safely under adverse conditions, it is essential to respect nature. For example, high winds have been known to spin empty aircraft around 180 degrees on an icy tarmac.
- Prior to a storm we take a number of steps to prepare our operation. For example, we will secure ground equipment and in some cases outfit vehicles with chains so they can drive safely in icy conditions.
- We will also schedule extra staff and, in more severe weather, book airport hotel rooms for employees to ensure we have adequate staff near the airport. Even still, in severe storms it may be hard for employees to travel to work, resulting in airport staffing issues.
What if customers do not want to fly or if flights are cancelled?
- When a storm is anticipated, Air Canada will implement a flexible rebooking policy to allow customers to change and rebook their flights at no cost within a certain time period.
- If a flight is cancelled due to a storm, customers have the option to rebook on another flight if space is available or to request a full refund.
Why do planes get delayed on the tarmac?
- Lengthy tarmac delays are exceedingly rare, but can occur. They can result from a number of events, most commonly from waiting to enter the de-icing facility, waiting in line behind other aircraft for take-off, or during airport shutdowns while runways are plowed. Also, congestion on the tarmac can result in there being more aircraft than available terminal gates for them to park, leading to lengthy waits for a gate to open.
- We do all we can to avoid tarmac waits because we know customers are inconvenienced. As well, it is costly for an airline to have an aircraft wait on the tarmac because it is using expensive fuel to generate power and it also expends valuable crew time, as crews are only allowed to work a certain number of hours per day and per month.
- Air Canada’s policy is to return aircraft waiting on the tarmac to the gate after three hours if it is safe and possible to do so. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to leave the line of aircraft waiting to take off, much as in a traffic jam, and often too during a storm no gates are available to park. Moreover, while customers do not like waiting on the tarmac our experience is they prefer to travel if possible, even if delayed for a time on the tarmac. For this reason, we will delay returning to the gate if we believe there will soon be an opportunity to take off.
- Even if a gate is available, returning the aircraft to the terminal can create additional difficulties. The take-off slot for the flight may be lost, customers deplaning may not return in time for the re-departure, crew duty times may be exceeded, and, with the unscheduled gating, there may not be ground staff available in the airport to assist customers from the aircraft. Given this, returning to the gate can create greater inconvenience for customers and result in cancellation of the entire trip.
- During tarmac waits, the on-board in-flight entertainment system will be turned on for customers. Light refreshments may be made available however it is not possible for the flight attendants to conduct a full food service as the aircraft may receive permission to depart at any time, so the cabin must be prepared for take-off for safety reasons. Also, if on-board food and beverages are consumed before departure there will not be enough during the flight, which can last up to 18 hours. Finally, the crew will endeavor to make on-board announcements and provide updates, but often no information is available due to the vagaries of the weather.
What happens after a storm?
- Storms can have a very large impact on our operation.
- We operate to 180 destinations all over the world and we carry up to 120,000 customers a day – equivalent to an entire city – so a bad storm at a major hub can leave aircraft and customers out of place literally all over the world.
- A first requirement is therefore getting the aircraft back into position and to fly stranded customers to their destinations.
- Additionally, we need to continue normal operations and move the customers from the next day’s regularly scheduled flights.
- Where possible we will put bigger aircraft onto a route to carry more passengers or add an entirely new flight and create a new schedule. However, this is complex and takes time as we have up to 1,500 flights a day system-wide, counting our regional carriers, which must all be coordinated.
- Because it takes time to develop a new schedule during or just after a storm you will sometimes see customers saying in the media “I cannot get home for a week”, but usually that is because we do not have the extra flights or the revised schedule in place yet. Generally after a storm, most passengers who still want to travel can do so within 24 to 36 hours.
- Call centres become very busy around the time of storm. Rebooking customers one at a time is a slow process and as a result call centre response times can be lengthy before, during and after a storm.
- This is why we encourage customers to use our online Self-Service Rebooking Tools to rebook themselves. But again, this sometimes takes time to start working properly because we must develop a new schedule by adding the flights or putting larger planes on a route and then load it in our reservation system. For this reason, we encourage customers to check back if a flight is not immediately available.
- We attempt to notify customers of their new flights, which is why it is important we have an email or local contact number.
- We actively discourage people from going to the airport to try to rebook. There are several reasons this is not a good idea, mostly it is because the new recovery schedule is often not in place so the agents do not have seats to sell customers. As well, our employees will also be occupied helping customers who are travelling. Unless customers have a confirmed ticket on flight scheduled to operate, we strongly advise against going to the airport.
View our Tips for winter travel.