Airport Confidential: Inside the world of airline cancellations

By David Flynn, February 26 2014
Airport Confidential: Inside the world of airline cancellations

We've all been caught out by a cancelled flight – but who makes the call to cancel a flight, and what's the thinking behind that decision?

It's far more complex than you might imagine – and it's not always to do with poor weather or a technical issue with your plane.

Airlines also scrap and reschedule flights on a day to day basis according to profitability and even the number of top-tier frequent flyers aboard.

This week's US edition of Time magazine features a fascinating cover story on airline cancellations, with a close-up 'behind the scenes' at Qantas partner American Airlines' network operations nerve centre and the people who work there.

"These are the men and women who decide if your flight takes off on time or leaves you stranded", Time explains.

One of the high-tech tools in their arsenal is an algorithm which AA calls 'The Cancellator'. Yes, they actually do call it that.

The Cancellator decides which flights to axe, although it apparently makes allowances for the number of high-ranking 'elite' frequent flyers on a route – the more elites there are on board, the better a chance your flight will take off!

Here's the opening extract from the article – to dive into the full story you'll need to grab a copy of Time or have an online subscriber.

Now is the winter of our disconnects. And cancellations. And getting stuck in faraway places with no fast way home.

A single snowy week in February saw more than 14,000 flights canceled, among the nearly 79,000 erased by a series of winter storms that are partly the product of a weather phenomenon called the polar vortex.

An additional 290,000 have been delayed, according to flight-tracking website Flightaware.

But the weather alone does not explain why on any given day, tens of thousands of passengers may find themselves stranded and scrambling to make their way home.

The cancellation crisis also reflects how drastically the airline business has changed in the past decade.

After 9/11, after the great Recession, after bankruptcies and consolidations, the airlines have bounced back, stronger than ever but also more disciplined.

Serial mergers have left Americans with just three legacy carriers, which means redundant or unprofitable flights are scrapped and planes are more crowded.

Tight schedules and turnarounds mean a thunderstorm blowing through Newark, N.J., can radiate cancellations across the country, leaving customers stranded when other planes are too full to accommodate them.

And new government regulations designed to prevent passengers from being held captive on the tarmac carry such hefty fines that airlines are more likely than ever before to cancel delayed flights.

But who, amid the enraged tweets and forlorn instagrams, actually decides which flights will live or die?

Read more: Airport Confidential – Inside the Strange World of Airline Cancellations

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2199

So that's why the 17:45 SYD-MEL flight always gets the chop...

QFF Gold QC gold

26 Nov 2012

Total posts 56

'The Cancellator' LOL

15 Dec 2013

Total posts 42

Qantas constantly cancels Tasman flights to AKL due to poor loadings.

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