Avoiding Irene: Airlines Cancel More Than 6,000 Flights

Rerouting flights is logistical challenge

By Scott Gordon
|  Friday, Aug 26, 2011  |  Updated 11:03 PM CDT
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A team of logistics experts for American Airlines is deciding how to juggle flights to avoid the hurricane.

Scott Gordon, NBCDFW.com

A team of logistics experts for American Airlines is deciding how to juggle flights to avoid the hurricane.

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U.S. airlines, including Fort Worth-based American Airlines, expect to cancel thousands flights over the next three days because of Hurricane Irene.

Inside a building not far from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, logistics experts for American huddle over computer screens loaded with maps and the latest weather data and decide how to reroute hundreds of flights to avoid the storm.

"You try not to pull the trigger on canceling too soon because this is the end of a busy summer travel season," American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. "So you're trying to operate as long as you can, in a safe manner."

The job falls to employees in the airline’s System Operations Control, or SOC, a 24-hour-per-day operation near American Airlines headquarters.

Dispatchers, as they’re called, have already canceled 265 flights on Saturday and plan to cancel many more on Sunday.

Hurricanes always interfere with air travel. But Irene, skirting up the East Coast over several days, promises to disrupt a lot more flights than most.

Nationwide, airlines expected to cancel 6,100 in the three days as Hurricane Irene batters the East Coast.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines plans to cancel 400 flights through Monday.

Three major airports in the Washington area will close on Saturday, Smith said. New York City airports will be closed on Sunday, he said.

Inside American’s SOC, the pace has picked up, but Smith said controllers stay focused.

"If you go in and it's a normal day, things are busy, people are talking, the computers are humming,” he said. “And you go in on a terrible day... and people are talking, people are busy, and the computers are humming. They do a fabulous job of keeping on an even keel."

The goal is keep as much of the system running as possible, while keeping planes and crews out of harm's way.

Then, after the hurricane is over, the challenge is to get the schedule back to normal quickly, Smith said.

"It's an operational challenge, but I think overall, our dispatch people do a fabulous job of trying to minimize the impact as much as possible,” he said.

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