As snow falls, flight cancellations pile up at Charlotte airport

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 11, 2014 

Hundreds of flights to and from Charlotte Douglas International Airport were canceled early Wednesday, as officials marshaled de-icing trucks, chemicals and snowplows for the airport’s biggest fight against winter weather in a decade.

Airport workers treated miles of pavement and hosed down dozens of jets with de-icing fluid that costs nearly $8 a gallon – more than twice as much as the fuel powering their engines.

Almost 800 arriving and departing flights had been canceled at Charlotte Douglas by early Wednesday according to FlightStats.com, in advance of the brunt of the storm. That’s about half of the airport’s typical daily total.

Only Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson International had more cancellations, with almost 2,100. Delta Air Lines, which has a hub in Atlanta, led the nation in cancelations, scrubbing more than 1,100 flights.

On Tuesday, US Airways canceled more than 150 flights at Charlotte Douglas, almost a quarter of its total at the airport.

About 80 passengers spent Tuesday night in the airport, said Martha Edge, Charlotte Douglas’ terminal operations manager. That was fewer than the airport anticipated, but with more snow and ice expected Wednesday, Edge was preparing for more stuck passengers.

“If needed, we have cots and mats we’re able to distribute,” said Edge. “We’re preparing for the worst, as far as people stuck in Charlotte.”

The travel problems were partly a product of the weather as effects rippled through the air travel system and partly the result of airlines canceling flights pre-emptively to avoid stranding fliers ahead of Wednesday’s anticipated major storm.

American Airlines spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said pre-canceling flights can be especially important at a hub like Charlotte. That’s because more than three quarters of the airport’s passengers are connecting to other destinations at Charlotte Douglas, not starting or ending their flights.

And connecting passengers often get the worst of canceled flights. For example, if a plane makes it to Charlotte from New York with a passenger bound for Florida, and that connecting flight can’t leave, that Florida-bound passenger is stuck in limbo until they can get a flight out.

Charlotte Douglas Assistant Aviation Director Herbert Judon said airlines have gotten better about pre-canceling flights and not stranding passengers in hub airports in recent years.

“The airlines obviously realize that canceling flights in advance is going to be an inconvenience, but it’s better to be inconvenienced at home,” he said.

To keep the airport open, Charlotte Douglas put employees on 12-hour shifts, one during the day and one overnight.

“I’m tired,” said Judon on Wednesday morning. “I’ve been up the last 14 hours.”

But he and Edge said airport personnel accept they have to work long hours to accommodate passengers during storms.

“We realize it’s part of the job to work long hours and be on the front lines when other people are relaxing at home,” said Judon. “To some extent, I’ll say we enjoy it.”

Edge said the extra work is expected.

“That’s the job, and we want to make sure these people are happy and comfortable,” she said. “We’re focusing more on them, it’s never our own needs.”

Ice, snow threaten airport

“These metal tubes flying around here ice up,” said Interim Deputy Aviation Director Jack Christine.

The airport has three runways to keep cleared, along with taxiways, roadways, parking decks and surface lots. Workers also have to meticulously clean planes of snow and ice.

Charlotte Douglas has faced problems with de-icing planes in the past. In February 2013, a snowstorm delayed flights for hours and left hundreds of passengers to spend the night in the terminal. An internal memo from PSA Airlines, a subsidiary that flies as US Airways Express, blamed air traffic controllers and the airport for inadequate de-icing and snow removal, calling the situation a “nightmare.”

Christine said Charlotte Douglas has purchased eight more de-icing trucks for the airport, bringing the total to 36. By late afternoon, 163 planes had been de-iced.

The airport also bought three new multifunction plows last fall for $1 million. Powered by two 650-horsepower diesel engines, the machines are bigger than a firetruck and combine a plow, wire brushes to sweep up behind and a blower that cranks out wind at more than 350 mph to blast away the powder.

They’ve been used once so far, during January’s snow dusting. Christine said they cut the airport’s time to clear a runway from about 45 minutes to 20 or 25.

Tricky storms

At its peak, as many as 500 people are involved with keeping the airport running during snowstorms. Still, the airport’s capacity is reduced to maybe 30 or 40 flights an hour, depending on the situation.

The airport also opens a “snow desk” next to its regular operations center – what operations manager Jimmy Mynatt calls “the pulse of the airport” – where workers huddle around screens showing weather forecasts, monitor the radio and keep track of which surfaces need to be treated for snow and ice.

“In this part of the Carolinas, it changes all the time,” said Assistant Aviation Director Mark Wiebke, as workers maneuvered mammoth snowplows into position near the runways. “You think it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Then the next morning you get up and you have 6 inches.”

Chemicals are on the front line of the airport’s duel with snow and ice. Workers spread urea and potassium acetate on the runways, taxiways and ramps, and hose down planes with glycol to keep them ice-free.

The timing has to be right, Wiebke said: Put the chemicals on too early, and they might get washed away by rain. Too late, and frozen precipitation could already be accumulating.

“When you get freezing rain, sleet, traffic on it, melting, thawing, and freezing, then freezing on top of it, that can be tricky to deal with,” said Wiebke.

Economic necessity

Keeping airports open and planes flying is big business: While individual travelers lament delays and canceled flights, the total economic impact is an even bigger burden. An aviation data company named masFlight estimated January’s snowstorms – which caused 49,000 canceled flights and 300,000 delays – cost travelers $2.5 billion and airlines between $75 million and $150 million.

The cost to passengers includes hotel rooms, meals, lost work and extra travel time. And beyond the inconvenience to passengers, ice poses a threat to safety: Its buildup on wings reduces a plane’s lift, and can cause a crash.

At Charlotte Douglas, more than 1,800 arriving and departing flights have been canceled in the past 30 days, and about 6,000 have been delayed, according to FlightStats.com.

US Airways, which merged with American Airlines in December, waived ticket change fees for passengers whose flights are affected by the winter weather.

Charlotte Douglas is the nation’s sixth-largest by the number of flights. Charlotte Douglas averaged more than 1,500 takeoffs and landings a day in 2013.

Some travelers already knew Tuesday that their flights Wednesday were canceled. Philip Sanford, a humans relations professional, was scheduled to take a 7:55 a.m. flight home to Ohio. He got an automated call letting him know the flight had been canceled, and he rebooked on a 2:30 p.m. flight.

“We’ll see how the weather goes,” he said. “I’ll be packed and ready to go, but fully prepared to travel Thursday also.”

At Charlotte Douglas, officials say they’re ready for a long week.

“That’s why I have a couch in my office,” said Christine.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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