Logistically Speaking: Delayed Reactions Haunt the Not-So-Friendly Skies

Jan. 9, 2014
Don't just get mad at the airlines when they cancel your flight. Now you can get mad at Uncle Sam, too.

Winters in Cleveland being what they are, my wife and I thought it would be a great idea to fly our kids down to Florida, where we could spend a few days over the holidays at Disney World. We had to connect through Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., and wouldn’t you know, it had snowed the previous night. In my naiveté, I assumed that the airlines know there’s a really good chance that it could snow along the East Coast in the winter, but no, from all appearances, this possibility had never occurred to anybody at Dulles, and as a result the airport was clogged with people going nowhere.

So facing a lengthy delay before our flight took off, I took the opportunity to get caught up on the latest air travel news.

The year Santa Claus showed up a day (or two days, or three days) late. People used to look at me funny when I told them I still brave the cold and the crowds to do my Christmas shopping in person rather than online. I didn’t get those weird looks this year, though—maybe because some of them are still waiting for the gifts they ordered online to be delivered. Turns out that package delivery giant UPS, and to a lesser extent FedEx, didn’t have enough planes to accommodate all of the packages consumers bought from online retailers (the Wall Street Journal describes dozens of workers at the UPS air hub in Louisville “standing around idle because the unexpected glut of packages from last-minute shoppers had swamped the company’s air fleet”).

According to The Motley Fool, as the online retailer most impacted from the delivery snafus, Amazon is looking at other options to ensure its customers are never disappointed like that again. Amazon already has its own private fleet of delivery trucks—AmazonFresh—for its fledgling grocery operations, and the company could very well end up expanding that fleet to deliver other items as well. Amazon also launched a pilot program with the US Postal Service to deliver packages on Sundays in some key cities during the holidays. And of course, there is the much-ballyhooed Amazon drone-delivery project. As the Fool reports, “Online retailers providing their own delivery services could potentially leave shippers like UPS and FedEx in very hot water indeed.”

A “smarter” way to travel. Part of the “fun” of air travel is going through security, since you never really know which TSA protocol is in effect at any given airport. Way back in the late 1980s, I reported about airport detection devices developed by various government contractors that used neural networks to determine if bombs, or the stuff to make bombs, was in somebody’s luggage. These units, unfortunately, carried a hefty price tag and a higher-than-acceptable rate of false positives so they never caught on, which is why TSA agents are still frisking toddlers today.

In the meantime, other artificial intelligence-based detection systems are in various stages of pilot testing at selected airports. As the WSJ reports, biometrics, for instance, are being used for airport border control, scanning fingerprints of pre-screened frequent fliers traveling internationally. Facial recognition technology is also being tested, as are robots. Whether any of these systems actually ends up being implemented nationwide remains to be seen.

Everybody talks about the weather, but the airports sure don’t seem to know what to do about it. Unless you live in San Diego or Key West, you probably noticed it was very, very cold and snowy in early January, which predictably meant thousands of flights were canceled and delayed. Airport and airline spokespeople just as predictably explained how unpredictable weather patterns can be during the winter, but I do have to give JetBlue some credit for at least coming up with a new culprit: the U.S. Department of Transportation, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration.

Just like motor carriers have been forced by the DOT to reduce the number of hours their drivers can be behind the wheel, so too has the FAA reduced the hours of service airline pilots can be flying. Those new rules took effect on January 4, and they now require pilots have at least 10 hours of rest before their flight duty period. So with all the cancellations and delays, many pilots were unable to report on time and didn’t have enough time left “on the clock” to take on their scheduled assignments.

So the next time you find yourself stuck at the airport for hours on end waiting for your delayed flight to begin boarding, you can just blame the government.

Follow me on Twitter@supplychaindave.

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