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Photo by: Yochai Mossi- Courtesy Lufthansa
The Travel Adviser: Encountering ‘The Cancellator’
By MARK FELDMAN
16/03/2014
In a world where flights are tightly scheduled, and where planes are flying at full capacity, there are going to be days when you can’t win.
 
At the dawn of commercial airline travel, schedules were made based on two factors – availability of aircraft and potential profitability. The larger the fleet, the more cities one could service. Airline pilots were plentiful, and flight attendant was considered a plum job which many a single woman and man used all their wile and wits to land. As the computer age dawned, airline schedules, while planned by man were plotted out in all their details by computers.

What never truly progressed, at least until recently, is how flights are delayed or canceled.

Tight schedules and turnarounds mean that a snow flurry in Newark can radiate flight cancellations across the US. A flyer who has a heart attack on a flight from Tel Aviv to Newark results in an emergency stop in Reykjavik. So who actually decides which flights will live or die? These days, that decision is being made by an algorithm, with, of course, input from human operators. Many employees call their program “the Cancellator.” The Cancellator attempts to keep the chaos from a canceled or delayed flight to a minimum.

The large airlines have a combination of meteorologists, airport managers, crew schedulers, flight attendant supervisors, maintenance and parts trackers and other personnel to keep some of the largest aircraft aloft. In essence they are the masters of the Cancellator.

Monitors dot the main room, tracking flights and traffic patterns. Other screens shows the positions of all aircraft, weather radar and ground delays. Others no doubt monitor how well the airline is performing tracking arrival and departure data and whether crew members are close to reaching their hourly work maximum.

A big issue when a plane is delayed is that the planes and the crews end up in far-flung places and retrieving them is time-consuming and expensive.

There are three broad dimensions to the task of canceling a flight: customers, crews and planes. You might (foolishly) hope that customers come first, but the reality is that while re-booking may be ideal for customers it has the potential to destroy the airline’s schedule for the next day, too, as the crews will be totally out of position. The crew issue is more complex than it might appear because each crew member is on the clock. Many pilots, for example, can only fly 100 hours a month. Adding rest times between flights with the contractual obligations that flight attendants’ contracts maintain makes all this into a very large-scale chess game.

Some flights have a smaller chance of being canceled.

Frequent flyers to and from the United States, from Europe and the Middle East, have learned from experience that international flights have a high priority.

Same rule for any shorter flights that are ferrying crews, particularly to those international flights; if a crew can’t get to JFK, the JFK-Tel Aviv flight will be scrubbed. On the other hand, you may be out of luck if your flight is full of “terminators” – airline jargon for travelers who do not have connections to further destinations.

Concurrently if you’re flying to a busy hub with frequent service, for example Washington to New York, your odds of a cancellation also go up, since it will be easier to re-book you. In the case of a canceled flight due to strikes, security or work-related issues or weather, the onus of finding an alternate empty seat fall on the passenger. In fact, if you ever took the time to read the fine print on a Delta ticket, it specifically states that Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of the contract you engage in when purchasing a ticket. Moreover US federal law gives airlines the right to cancel or delay flights with impunity. So if the Cancellator catches you during a dust storm or a polar vortex, don’t take it personally. And don’t expect a free hotel room.

El Al, while trying to live up to the adage “a light unto the nations,” too often is merely reflected in the rear-view mirror of the world’s airlines as they fast-forward their system of operations. She tries to balance between retaining her customer base and steadfastly holding on to the concept of not flying on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. Rather than operate 24/7, senior management feel they have no choice but to ground their fleet for at least 24 hours each and every week.

El Al’s Operation Control Center is also a combination of human staff and top-of-the-line computers. Not being privy to its inner workings, I can only muse on the decision-making process that resulted in the following torrid tale of apathy and avarice: Dan works hard at his job, and living in a house where both his wife and daughter are students means traveling abroad is determined first and foremost by their semester breaks from university. So having advance knowledge of their break, he scoured the Internet to find a reasonable trip abroad amenable to that time period. Finding that Eshet Tours offered an eight-day tour to India at a great price, coupled with a non-stop El Al flight to Mumbai, Dan quickly signed up and began the process of arranging visas.

El Al’s eight-hour flight to Mumbai departs most Fridays at 5:15 a.m., and usually arrives at 4:40 p.m. with a couple of hours before candle-lighting time in Mumbai.

The aircraft and plane resides in India throughout Shabbat, flying back to Israel each Saturday night, also a couple of hours after Shabbat has ended.

The Eshet tours group checked in at Ben-Gurion International Airport, received their boarding passes and made their way to the duty-free to do their part in strengthening the Israeli economy. The flight that Friday was close to capacity.

What happened next will be discussed in the courts, with passengers asserting that the El Al pilots called in sick, and El Al claiming that there were mechanical issues. There is however no disagreement on what transpired after that. Strident calls were made over the loudspeaker requesting all passengers on the El Al flight to report to the gate posthaste.

Upon arrival the passengers were informed that their flight was canceled and that they must immediately return all of their duty-free purchases and go back to the departure area.

Voices were raised and belligerent threats made, but to no avail – El Al would not permit the plane to depart so late as to land in Mumbai after Shabbat.

Disjointed and disingenuous, they could not even inform passengers when they could fly out, telling them to contact the airline or their travel consultant after Shabbat.

Disheveled and disappointed the passengers retrieved their suitcases and were sent at El Al’s expense back to their homes or hotels throughout Israel.

Why nobody at El Al tried to re-book some of the clients on other airlines has never been explained. At that time of morning, there were flights via Amman and Istanbul, Zurich and Frankfurt, Rome and Paris that would have brought the clients into Mumbai on Friday. The Eshet Tour representative was more apathetic than apoplectic and meekly accepted El Al’s instructions.

Individual passengers were less appreciative and with the assistance of their travel consultant forced El Al to re-book them on other airlines, not concerned about arriving after the commencement of Shabbat.

But the Cancellator was not yet finished. The plane (a Boeing 767) which El Al operated on this route had close to 200 passengers expecting to fly from Mumbai back to Israel that Saturday night. With no plane on the horizon heading to Mumbai, the inevitable happened – passengers started hearing rumors that they had no way out of Mumbai that Saturday night. With the advent of Shabbat in Mumbai, calls to El Al’s office in India went unanswered, with the soonto- be-stranded passengers in India realizing that they would need to spend one more day abroad. El Al on Fridays in Israel also works with a very reduced staff and repeated calls to their reservations center were met with noncommittal replies echoing over and over, “Don’t worry, it will be OK.”

Somehow, whether it was a miraculous recovery of the El Al pilots or a quick repair of the aircraft, the plane was able to depart Saturday night to Mumbai.

While not flying on Shabbat, El Al had no choice but to inform passengers on Saturday that the plane would depart that evening. Dan and his family were overjoyed that they were given a second chance and got themselves to the airport on time for the Saturday night flight.

That night, though, the plane was barely half full, with many having forced El Al to re-book them on other airlines that Friday or simply electing to cancel their trip outright.

The stranded El Al customers in Mumbai were less fortunate, with many of the student travelers and lower income passengers having no choice but to spend the night at Mumbai airport awaiting the very tardy El Al plane.

Fortunately Israeli legislation offers compensation to Dan and the other passengers whose flight was “delayed” by 36 hours. While El Al will quibble over the amount as many are requesting lost work days, and reimbursement of additional expenses, in the end El Al will pay dearly for the Cancellator’s decision.

Luckily for them, because as every frequent flier now knows, in a world where flights are tightly scheduled, and where planes are flying at full capacity, there are going to be days when you can’t win.

The author is CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions & comments, email him at mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il
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