Unpacked: How We Plan for Weather Events


Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry! This time we’re talking about how we plan around icky weather, or – as we call them in airline talk – weather events.

View from the flight deck window following a snowstorm

Weather is one of those topics that people get passionate about. After all, weather determines a lot of different variables in our day-to-day routines, including what we wear, what we’re going to do and where, and how we’re going to get there. Unless you’re a United States Postal Service employee, rain, wind, snow, sleet, and hail can put a damper in that planned picnic, leaf peeping drive, day on the beach, trip to see grandma, and any number of other activities. And, as we saw this week with Hurricane Sandy, weather can sadly do a lot more than just mess with our weekend plans.

As an airline, we’re even more focused on the weather than many. After all, planes fly in the weather so we have to remain acutely aware not just of current weather in our area as well as weather that might be coming into our area.

Our meteorologist Tom briefing the Command Center during Sandy

We have an in-house meteorologist (Tom) who monitors weather systems in the air space throughout our network using the same technology that the FAA and others in the industry use so that we’re all on the same page. We pay particularly close attention to forecasted weather in the New York and Boston areas, where the majority of our flights originate, and work with a number of teams at JetBlue, the airports we serve, and the FAA to determine our how weather might impact our operations.

Much like you check the weather and wear those rain boots rather than heels, we’re watching the weather several days out to determine how we might proactively adjust our operating plan to protect our crewmembers, customers and our aircraft. No two weather events are exactly alike, which means our team has to be nimble and versatile when it comes to planning for a weather event. Winter storms, for instance, tend to be more predictable than summer thunderstorms, which can produce pop-up cells with little notice, factors that determine how quickly and accurately we’re able to plan proactively.

Snowstorm in Boston last winter

Not all weather events mean flight cancellations. Some storms pass quickly and we can still operate full schedules but result in ground delay programs, or periods of time when the airport halts all arrivals and departures, until the storm leaves and it’s safe to resume operations. Other storms may be small enough that planes can safely fly over or around them. Then there are bigger systems that may bring conditions that are not safe to fly in – like winds over 40 mph that complicate runway conditions, storm cells that are taller than 35,000 feet, ice, or low visibility, among other variables like airport conditions and crew positioning. In addition to cancelling flights as needed when weather prohibits flying to certain airports, delays and diversions to airports reporting better conditions are options we consider in our operating plan as well.

Crew availability is also a piece of the puzzle.  Flights may be canceled due to crew availability even after the airports and aircraft are ready to go because flight crews have strict duty periods and they have to rest. That means after they are on duty for a certain period of time, they must go on mandatory rest.  This is a safety rule and one we happily watch like a hawk.  It’s sometimes not possible to position enough crews before a storm in order to have a perfect recovery after the storm.  So, sometimes a crew will have to go on a rest period but we don’t have another crew positioned at that city, and we have to cancel a flight.  That means that even if the sun is shining, we could still have weather-related delays and cancellations due to crew issues.

Inside the command center during Sandy

When we know a storm may impact air travel, we’ll generally issue a fee waiver a couple of days before the weather hits, to allow those flying with us the opportunity to change or cancel their flights without incurring any fees. We communicate via our travel alert on jetblue.com and via our social channels like here on our BlueTales blog, and on  Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to check their flight status before heading to the airport. We try whenever possible to issue cancellations with enough advanced notice so that you don’t make a trip to the airport unnecessarily.

We meet with members of our System Operations, Airports, Customer Support, among other teams to determine the best operating plan given the forecast and the airport conditions. If a weather event is shaping up to be especially challenging we stand up our command center, which has representatives from various workgroups, who work around the clock to ensure we create and execute a safe and efficient operating plan that protects our people and our planes.

If we cancel flights in advance of a storm, we proactively contact all impacted customers and help to rebook them on alternative flights. We consider things like whether we need to move our aircraft or reposition our crews if we’re looking at potential infrastructure damage like we saw with Sandy so we can get quickly back into position after the storm passes and airports are ready to operate.

Our Customer Support team assisting customers on the phones

Our Customer Support (reservations) team, many of whom work from home out in Salt Lake City, works 24/7 to answer questions that come in to 1-800-JETBLUE and to rebook customers. Many of them work overtime during a weather event to ensure that all of our customers are taken care of. Of course, weather events don’t just impact flights, they impact people. We understand how frustrating it is to have your much-deserved vacation, that trip to see your friends and family, or for business delayed or cancelled due to weather, and work diligently to ensure that our customers are taken care of. In cases of extraordinary weather events like Sandy last week, or Katrina or any number of others that we’ve seen year in and year out, we look beyond our fuselage to the communities impacted to help our family and neighbors get back on their feet.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!