Storms, holiday schedules and new pilot rules made new year tough for airlines


After bad weather hit U.S. carriers hard, Miramar-based Spirit Airlines expects its operations to return to normal by Tuesday night.

Conversations about weekend activities started to sound similar Monday at Spirit Airlines’ Miramar headquarters.

“The last call I got off of was 3:30 in the morning,” said Jyri Strandman, the low-cost airline’s vice president of flight operations.

Crew resources director Bobby Nunneker almost made it to sleep by 10:30 p.m. Sunday, until a flight had to be diverted from LaGuardia to JFK in New York — and he had to spend the next couple of hours in the office.

“None of us slept last night,” said Brian Folan, manager of the airline’s operations control center, which on Monday was abuzz with dozens of workers monitoring flight delays, maintenance issues, crew schedules and, of course, the weather.

Since Jan. 2, back-to-back storm systems swept rain, snow and sub-freezing temperatures through the Midwest and Northeast, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights nationwide., which tracks industry data, reported that 3,700 flights were canceled Monday, bringing the total past 10,000 in four days.

But Spirit, which flies with planes fuller than most airlines, said it has canceled only 10 flights since Jan. 1.

“Our commitment to completing the flight is a top priority,” Strandman said. “It may be eight hours later, but we are very, very committed to getting you there.”

The airline, which has more than 3,000 employees, could not provide figures for the number of delayed flights over the past several days, but said some of the holdups took as long as 11 or 12 hours so crew members could rest for the required amount of time.

New Federal Aviation Administration rules to prevent pilot fatigue took effect over the weekend, which added an extra wrinkle to a weekend already complicated by holiday crowds and extreme weather. Strandman said the new regulations make scheduling more complex and give airlines less flexibility when dispatching crew members, especially if there are weather delays.

The solution in some cases was to bring a fresh crew to a plane, have a few extra planes on standby and keep plenty of workers on call.

“We have a lot of puzzle masters throughout this system,” Strandman said.

Late Monday morning, many of those puzzle masters were hard at work restoring order to a schedule that has almost 275 daily flights.

On the top level of a tiered room, the maintenance operations chief sat next to the customer-movement manager, who has key airports on speed dial. Next to her was the coordinator for dispatch, whose neighbor was the crew shift supervisor. He spent much of the late morning and early afternoon calling employees and asking such questions as: “Can you get to the airport for a 3:30 departure?”

After weathering the worst of the storms (and “praying to the god of weather to improve”), Strandman said he anticipates the airline’s operations will be mostly back to normal by Tuesday night.

But he and his co-workers expect any lull to be short-lived.

“It’s going to happen again,” predicted Folan.

This report was supplemented with information from Reuters.

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