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Flying Fibs

Jan 29 2010

The blast of winter weather we’re having today makes it the perfect time to talk about winter weather and how airports and airlines deal with it. Winter weather isn’t fun at airports. Some of the reasons are obvious, others not so much.

Snowflake graphicThis story has needed telling for sometime, but telling it didn’t seem worth the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would likely ensue from a certain corporate airline office. Now, the time is right because the airline you’re about to read about is defunct. It’s been absorbed by Delta. Yes, that’s right; this story is about Northwest Airlines.

Before we continue, you need to know something about us. Airport staff takes pride in keeping the airport open during winter weather. We can’t remember a time when the airport was closed due to runway and taxiway conditions. When the frozen stuff flies, a fleet of airport snowplows and snowblowers hit the pavement. You get the idea; we take snow removal seriously.

So, it was a particularly irritating snow day, a couple of winters ago, when the phone rang and it was a reporter from the News-Leader. “Why is the airport closed?” It wasn’t a question––it was an accusation. “It isn’t,” I replied. There was a pause on the other end. “Well, we have a reporter who’s at the Memphis airport and they’re telling him that the Springfield airport is closed!”

Not again. This was at least the second winter in a row that fibs had flown from the Northwest ticket counter in Memphis. The Memphis to Springfield flight was canceled. When customers asked why, they were told, “The Springfield airport is closed.” The hidden message was always clear: that little Springfield airport doesn't know how to deal with winter weather. Customers nearly always believed it. And sometimes they would call us, demanding to know what our problem was. This was the first time that a reporter had called. I assured the reporter that the airport was open and that just ten minutes ago I had witnessed the landing of an American Airlines jet. She didn’t believe me…demanded to talk to someone else. I told her that she ought to come to the airport and see for herself. She declined and the conversation ended. The alleged closing never showed up in print, so she apparently believed me.

That same wintry week a Springfield resident called. “I’m at the Northwest ticket counter in Memphis and they’re telling me that the Springfield airport is closed. What’s the problem?” He was mad. You could hear the racket of the Memphis airport in the background. I assured him that our airport was open and described airport conditions: the runways were clear and planes were landing and taking off. On the other end there was an exasperated sigh. He sighed again and said, “Unbelievable!”

But wait, it gets better. The past three years we’ve had a lot of ice in Southwest Missouri. Remember that humdinger ice storm we had in 2007? There’s a story that could be told about that storm, but the involved airline is still in business, so let’s move on to the next ice event. It wasn’t nearly as bad as 2007. For two nights in a row the Springfield area got ice. Not enough to bring down power lines, or cause much of a problem on the runways, but it was heck on airplanes. Any plane that spent the night in Springfield had a thick coating of ice on it in the morning. Before it could take off, the ice had to be removed with de-icing fluid.

Well, guess what? Northwest had two planes in Springfield that sat on the ramp for two consecutive nights without de-icing. They sat there because the airline had canceled those flights for two days in a row. By the third morning there was more than an inch of ice covering the planes. At this point, Northwest decided it wanted to de-ice them. Problem was, there wasn’t enough de-icing fluid on hand to remove that much ice from two airplanes. There was enough on hand to handle normal de-icing operations, but not enough to squander on two airplanes that been left untreated for two consecutive nights. We told the airline no––it couldn’t use up all the de-icing fluid and leave the other airlines out in the cold.

In return at least one employee, at the Northwest counter in Springfield, told customers that the airport had run out of de-icing fluid. That’s why the flights, that were supposed to be handled by those two ice-laden airplanes, were canceled. The phone rang for a couple for days. “How could the airport be irresponsible enough to run out of de-icing fluid?” To this day, there are people who firmly believe that the Springfield airport ran out.

What gives—why cancel flights when the airport is open? There are several reasons, and they don’t just apply to the defunct airline: 1) weather conditions at connecting airports, 2) sometimes airlines cancel flights to avoid the high cost of winter operations, 3) ice build-up on a plane may prevent takeoff, even when airport is open, and 4) sometimes airlines preemptively cancel flights because they expect bad winter weather. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the airlines, and their pilots, make judgment calls. After looking at all available data, they conclude that flying in winter weather isn’t worth the risk. This is a judgment that none of us can question––airlines should always err on the side of caution.

That being said, if an airline employee tells you that our airport is closed, call their bluff. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for canceling a flight. There’s no reason to lie to a customer, or to sully the reputation of the airport. Don’t let the fibs fly.


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