TIME

Airport Confidential: Inside the Strange World of Airline Cancellations

American Airlines Integrated Operations Center (IOC) in Fort Worth, Texas. Brent Humphreys for TIME

These are the men and women who decide if your flight takes off on time or leaves you stranded. Inside the strange and complex world of Airline cancellations

Tim Campbell, senior vice president of air operations for American Airlines, is staring at a diagram of the Charlotte, N.C., airport. It shows the position of the carrier’s jets on the tarmac–the flights that haven’t already been canceled, that is–and how quickly they’re getting through deicing stations, since a traffic jam will slow everything down. So far, no jets are backed up; in fact, some of the deicers are idle. “I was questioning whether we maybe canceled too much,” he admits. But events prove otherwise: only half the airport ground crews will make it to work on this Wednesday in early February, as Charlotte is buried beneath a winter storm that is churning its way up the East Coast, bound to cancel flights by the dozen.

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. More flights have been grounded this winter than at any time since 1987, when the Department of Transportation first started collecting data. 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? In 2014 that decision is being made by an algorithm–with input from human operators–that tries to weigh which flights can be shelved while keeping an airline’s schedule as whole as possible. American Airlines’ employees even have a nickname for their program: the Cancellator. The Cancellator–and programs like it at other airlines–attempts to keep the chaos in the system to a minimum even as it maximizes the headaches for the unlucky. The idea is to use predictive models to cancel flights early, before people even leave for the airport. “We will do anything possible to avoid real-time cancellations,” says Rob Maruster, chief operating officer of JetBlue, which runs a similar program. “Nobody likes people standing in the airport watching real-time cancellations happen.” Instead, reaccommodation programs can rebook passengers automatically if they’ve set up that function on the airline’s website.

And yet the sheer size of the problem is beyond calculation. “There’s nothing that solves for all the factors,” says aviation expert Blair Pomeroy of consultancy Oliver Wyman. Our civil aviation system works no better than “just O.K.” on a perfect day–without weather, without labor issues, without mechanical malfunction. But on a bad day, like the one I spent witnessing the operation of American’s command center, the whole thing can grind to a halt. Turns out, the cancellations most travelers experience as random and cruel are anything but.

On the afternoon of Feb. 12, American’s integrated Operations Control Center just outside the Dallas–Fort Worth airport gives no hint that the Atlantic Coast is choking on snow and ice. The crisis room that hovers like a skybox above the 36,340-sq.-ft. (3,376 sq m) nerve center is empty. The main floor is a trading pit of meteorologists, airport managers, flight-attendant supervisors, crew schedulers, customer-service teams, diversion coordinators, specialists in each type of jet that American flies, maintenance and parts trackers, flight-operations engineers and other groups needed to keep what is now the world’s biggest airline aloft. In a centrally located pod designated for American’s air-traffic dispatchers, Ron Schulz and Billy Szendrey are manning the desk. They are, for this eight-hour shift, the masters of the Cancellator.

On one monitor they track federal air-route operations, which has information about airport conditions, traffic patterns, ground delays and gate capacity. Another screen shows the positions of all aircraft, superimposed over the weather radar. It’s looking grim. On a third, there’s a live view of how well American is performing in the midst of all this. It tracks metrics by airport and flight, gathering arrival and departure data, flight-delay minutes, passenger-delay minutes and whether crew members are in danger of reaching their hourly work maximums. A big issue when storms hit is that planes and crews end up in far-flung places, and retrieving them is time-consuming and expensive.

Schulz and Szendrey are constantly monitoring all these variables and feeding them into the Cancellator. Schulz looks at Chicago and sees 31 misconnects, meaning passengers who will miss their next flight the way things are going. Running a simulation, he can ask the program what would happen if, say, he adds 120 minutes to an outbound flight–that is, delay it until feeder flights catch up. How many customers would make their connection? Would any crew member have worked so many hours that they are close to a violation?

Before any big storm, the Cancellator proposes a hit list on its own, which Schulz and Szendrey fine-tune. It’s a big change from just a couple of years ago, when the two men were the ones making the call based on their own experience and then typing in the cancellations themselves. Today, once a plan is set in motion, the flight dispatchers look for options or exceptions the Cancellator didn’t spot, or react to rapidly changing conditions. “We’ll modify it–not that one, this one,” says Szendrey. “The computer may have canceled two flights in a row to the same destination. Sometimes we can take that out of the equation.”

There are three broad dimensions to the task of canceling a flight: customers, crews and jets. Customers come first, right? Not exactly. “Something may be fully optimized for customers [initially], but it’s going to destroy you the next day because you are going to have crews totally out of position,” says Campbell.

The crew issue is knottier than it might appear because each crew member is on the clock. The pilots, for example, can fly only 100 hours a month. And this year new Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring more pilot rest time between flights went into effect. At American and other unionized carriers, the flight attendants’ contracts also impose limitations.

Jets become pieces in a large-scale chess game. Where do you position them? Consider JetBlue, which keeps 20 to 35 jets overnight in Boston. With a storm on the horizon, it must decide whether to keep the jets in place or move most of them and their crews away from the weather. If JetBlue can’t restore normal operations in a 24-hour period, it may call a time-out. In early January, for instance, a big storm caused the carrier to pull the plug on most operations for about 17 hours to get jets and crews into the proper position. “When you take a 1,009-flight-a-day operation and grind it to a halt when it’s supposed to be perpetually in motion,” says JetBlue’s Maruster, “getting it back to its original status takes time.”

Some flights have an easier time getting a pass. International flights have a high priority. So do domestic flights that are ferrying crews, particularly to those international flights, because if a crew can’t get to New York City, the Paris flight gets scrubbed. On the other hand, you may be out of luck if your flight is full of “terminators,” airline jargon for travelers who aren’t connecting. And if you are flying from a busy hub to a busy hub with frequent service, say Dallas to New York, your odds of a cancellation also go up since it will be easier to rebook you. The carriers are known to have their own hit lists too, although if they keep grounding the same flights month after month, customers will eventually take their business elsewhere.

This being a for-profit business, weight is also given to the fares paid. Which is to say that all passengers are not created equal. A jet full of highly discounted leisure flyers scores lower in the Cancellator’s calculations than one loaded with full-fare business types. “There’s a kind of a point system, an optimizing system,” says Campbell. “Like a lot of businesses, the more you can take care of high-value customers, the better return you get on it.” That explains why a flight from Dallas to Detroit, where average fares are above $500, might take precedence over a flight to Orlando, where the figure is more like $300.

Back on the floor of American’s Control Center, Schulz, Szendrey and their colleagues patch the system together as it begins to fray. The pair can claim more than 65 years of service at American between them, having worked everywhere from reservations to crew scheduling. They hold federal aircraft-dispatcher licenses, and like most of the people in the room are union guys, represented by the Transport Workers Union, which engaged in ferocious battles with American’s former management. Since American’s merger last year, US Airways’ top managers are running the show, and there’s quiet on the labor front for the first time in decades.

The weather is always throwing the Cancellator curves. In Washington on Wednesday, airport authorities can’t get the runways cleared; on Thursday flight dispatchers can’t get to work; in Newark, a shortage of TSA workers means that only one security lane is open in Terminal C, delaying flights for hours. A week earlier in Dallas, even though ice was cleared from the runway after a storm, the tugs that normally push planes away from the gate couldn’t get enough traction to haul the big Boeing 777s out of their hangars.

Then another, somewhat unusual problem turns up on the screen: Vice President Joe Biden is flying to Miami, an American hub, and Air Force Two demands restricted airspace for security. This slows down other traffic. But Biden is running a half-hour late, so he’s delaying more flights than controllers had originally planned. “Our big issue was Biden flying down to Miami. He likes to land in Miami and disrupt our hub,” says Szendrey, with obvious irony. At the same time, a squall line is bearing down on western Florida, further diverting flights on a day that hardly needed more hair balls. By Wednesday afternoon, the Cancellator has been scratching flights from Miami all the way up to Boston.

One of the command center’s main missions is to limit the number of delay minutes and misconnects, which are tracked continuously. While we’re looking at the weather and traffic heading to Miami, Schulz points out Flight 1266 from New Orleans, which has six misconnects on it–Miami-bound passengers headed for South America who are going to miss their connecting flights. The plane is currently routed east-northeast out of New Orleans, veering south when it hits Georgia. Why doesn’t the jet fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico? I ask. Earlier in the day, the weather was too severe, but Schulz queries the system again and the computer reroutes the flight. Six misconnects saved.

But with airports running limited flights or shut down completely, the options narrow. On Thursday, the flight dispatcher’s scorecard shows that all passengers heading to Boston are delayed by a total of nearly 95,000 minutes, or an average of 90 minutes. The flight with the most delayed minutes might get landing dibs on the others. By the time the day is over, American has canceled 219 flights in all, about 9.5% of its daily total. Other airlines grappling with the weather have nixed 5,800 more. Thousands of flyers are stranded. This has been a mixed bag of weather, which complicates things even further–airlines need to apply different deicing fluids for snow or ice. On Feb. 12, freezing rain turned into snow and sleet in Atlanta by around 3 a.m. “Atlanta has ice pellets,” I overhear someone say. “Nobody is moving a wheel.” By 9 a.m. or 10 a.m, the main weather system hits Charlotte, and it snows all day. Snow begins in Raleigh, N.C., at noon and lasts until about 5 p.m., when it turns to freezing rain. Snow begins in Washington at about 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. It snows all night and continues into the next morning.

But at the operations center, Campbell gives his crew good marks in managing the storm. “We haven’t had any ‘Oh sh-t’s where we’ve stranded customers in the airports because we blew the forecast or reacted too slowly,” says Campbell. I ask Schulz if he has ever canceled a flight he was scheduled to take. No, he replies, but he’s witnessed the fruits of his labor: “I’ve walked into the airport thinking, I’m the guy who did that. I hope they don’t know it’s me.” I inquire about my chances of getting home the next morning. “Hey Billy, what have we done to New York tomorrow?” he asks Szendrey. The expectation is that LaGuardia will operate on a limited basis, meaning some large fraction of the planned flights won’t happen. How many? “A quarter to a third of the program,” replies Szendrey, a New York native. My flight still seems good to go.

This is of no comfort to customers like Aileen Cahill, who still couldn’t get out of New York during the storm. Cahill is an airline executive’s dream: a 2 million-mile platinum-level frequent flyer. But even she has had to absorb her share of the frustration in the post-9/11 flight economy. Passengers now bear nearly all the risk of empty seats, fuel prices, security and weather. Nearly all tickets purchased these days are nonrefundable–if you don’t show because you’re stuck in traffic, you lose the money. On the other hand, if the carrier cancels the flight or strands you in Boise, too bad. “If you screw up, you pay,” says aviation consultant Michael Boyd of Boyd Group International. “If they screw up, you are supposed to understand it.” Cahill is even more pointed. “You need a Purple Heart instead of a frequent-flyer card,” she says.

Consider Rule 240, for instance. It’s part of the contract of carriage, the fine-print legalese that specifies what the carrier’s responsibility is to you, the ticket holder. Not much, it turns out. Every airline has a form of Rule 240, and years ago it promised that if, say, Pan Am canceled your flight, it would switch you to TWA or Eastern if it couldn’t get you where you were going within four hours of your scheduled arrival.

Those airlines are long dead now, and so are inter-airline agreements that allowed competing domestic carriers to seamlessly accommodate customers when glitches arose. It was easier because there was so much slack in the system. Today Rule 240 clearly establishes the airlines’ lack of responsibility. If you read Delta’s contract of carriage, it specifically states that Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of the contract. Federal law gives airlines the right to cancel or delay flights with impunity, according to Adam Anolik of Anolik Law Group, a travel-law practitioner. Only when a delay or cancellation is within the carrier’s control can you qualify for compensation–at its discretion. So if the Cancellator nails you during a summer thunderstorm or a polar vortex, don’t take it personally. And don’t expect a free hotel room.

For passengers navigating this new world, it pays to stay informed and flexible. Airline and travel apps such as Kayak, TripCase and FlightAware allow you to log in your flight number and get updates when delays or cancellations occur. Anolik advises his clients to consider travel insurance, depending on the value of a trip and how much money is at stake–for instance, a cruise or prepaid hotel rooms.

Lynn Kirby, a travel agent from Oklahoma City who was delayed in Newark recently, knows the experience all too well. When her flight to Houston was canceled, she promptly rebooked, but she wasn’t taking anything for granted. “I try to be proactive for myself and my clients as well,” she says. “It helps to think ahead and have a Plan B if a flight is delayed or it’s canceled. I was looking for hotels in Houston for tonight. I have a room on hold just in case this flight is delayed and I miss the rest of my connection.”

Good advice that, because as every frequent flyer now knows, in a world where flights are tightly scheduled, where planes are chock-full, there are going to be days when you can’t win. Such was the case the day after I’d observed the American command center in action. At 3:31 a.m., a text-message alert jarred me awake in my Dallas hotel room. It was from American. My flight had been scratched because of weather. The Cancellator got me.

–With reporting by Sam Frizell/New York

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