When travelling in the US becomes a nightmare

A long line of travellers winds around the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
A long line of travellers winds around the atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Photo: AP

On any given day an average of around 2200 Australians set out to do business or holiday in America. At any given time there are about 30,000 short-term Australian visitors making their way around the USA, not counting thousands more on work visas.

After New Zealand and Indonesia, it is Australians’ most popular foreign country destination and, according to the tourism forecasters, will attract more than a million Aussies in 2015-16.

But the past two months has been anything but an easygoing holiday with the US east coast and midwest recording one of their coldest and snowiest winters on records.

Some people, at least, are making some fun from the winter storm that has hit the US.
Some people, at least, are making some fun from the winter storm that has hit the US. Photo: Reuters

That has put the US domestic airline system into a tailspin. According to an analysis by the Associated Press last week, more than 75,000 domestic flights have been cancelled since the official start of winter on December 1 – 14,000 of them in the past week alone.

Some of the biggest cities like New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and St Louis are said to have received twice to three times as much snow as they normally get. Even cities with mild year-round climates haven’t been spared, with ice storms in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas and Houston in Texas.

On Thursday last week, more than 70 per cent of all flights were cancelled in the airline hub cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Flight cancellations on the board at LaGuardia Airport in New York.
Flight cancellations on the board at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Photo: Reuters

Since the beginning of winter, 5.5 per cent of America’s 1.35 million scheduled flights have been cancelled, according to flight tracking site FlightAware - the highest total number and highest percentage of cancellations at least since the winter of 1987-1988, when the US Department of Transportation first started collecting cancellation data.

Executive Travel magazine says flight disruptions in January alone cost the airlines between $US75 million ($A83 million) and $US150 million, according to masFlight, a data and software analyst specialising in airline operations. But the company says the total cost to passengers themselves in January -- “the worst month for flight disruptions in recent memory” -- was around $US2.5 billion.

February is America’s coldest month on average and it still has 11 days to run. But that’s just the weather – unprecedented human factors are complicating the airport traffic jam:

* Since the 2001 terrorism shock and the global financial crisis of 2007-08, planes have never been so full to compensate for the fact that, in real terms, fares have never been so cheap. Whereas 20 years ago US domestic flights were only 60 to 70 per cent full, the so-called load factor is now well in excess of 80 per cent.

That means when flights are subject to mass cancellations, it can take up to twice as long for the system to recover: there are simply no longer the empty seats available to take up the overload. Passengers bumped as a result of a cancellation are sometimes having to wait days for a replacement flight.

*The US Department of Transportation has introduced punitive new regulations prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more while they wait for a takeoff slot. So airlines now choose to cancel blocks of flights to avoid potential fines of up to $US27,500 per passenger or $US4.1 million for a typical plane seating 150 passengers.

Airlines are now quicker to cancel flights, sometimes a day before a storm. The regulation has had the perverse unintended consequence that the airlines’ main focus in the event of a disruption is not to get passengers to their destinations, but to avoid gargantuan fines.

*The US airline regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, implemented a new rule at the start of January, increasing the amount of rest pilots need. That means that, in order to have enough well-rested pilots available, airlines are inclined to cancel more flights.

It’s certainly an eye-opener for first-time Australian visitors to the States, as weather rarely affects airlines Down Under and the on-time arrival rate rarely dips below 80 per cent.

Have you faced travel disruptions while travelling in the US? What do you think of US airlines and their service standards? Do you have tips for hassle-free travelling in America? Post your comments below.

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