Proactive Planning Can Help Minimize the Ripple Effect of Major Flight Disruptions

October 30, 2017    Category : Data Analytics   Posted By : Alina Kostek

Flight delays and cancellations happen every single day at airports. The causes for such are usually minor, but every now and then some unforeseen variables can cause major disruptions nationwide. Considering inclement weather, electrical problems, transportation issues and the occasional outliers like malfunctioning plumbing (yes, Orlando once had delays for an uncooperative toilet), at what point do these variables surpass a threshold that impacts a significant number of travelers? And to what extent do the trickle effects cause serious problems beyond the date of impact?

Due to the severe weather anomalies the East Coast experienced this summer with Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Jose, we selected the months of August and September 2017 for comparison among flight data and focused on numbers from a few East Coast hubs – Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Reagan National Airport (DCA), Orlando International Airport (MCO) – to find some answers.


Typical Routine Variables for Delays and Cancellations


  • Inclement weather

  • Operational inefficiencies

  • Security

  • Air traffic

  • The ripple effect: delays cause other delays, causing more delays, etc.

Looking at the graph below, the typical daily delay percentage falls between 10%-20%. Above 20% proves to affect a considerable number of passengers, and above 30% represents the real outliers and significant travel disruptions (Graph A). Daily cancellations are much more rare, averaging well below 5% regularly. It’s the uncommon events that can push cancellations over that 5% threshold (Graph B).

Graph A

Graph B

Identifying the Impactful Outliers

As you have probably noticed right away, there are obvious peaks and valleys on these graphs so lets take a look at these and identify the causes.

A severe tropical thunderstorm can account for the spike in delays for the Northeast on August 18th as blinding, torrential rains hit Washington DC and the southern New England area. (Graph A)  Luckily, airlines took the approach to ground flights ahead of the storm, and certain airlines even offered travelers “change fee waivers” to accommodate the unstable weather conditions.

Intense fog is to blame for the unprecedented amount of delays at Boston Logan Airport on September 18th. During this same time, travel alerts were issued for many northeast airports in anticipation of disruptions due to Hurricane Jose. It was a double hit of two events reflected in this peak of delays.

And lastly, causing the greatest overall disruption in September, Hurricane Irma took her toll on the South and was the sole contributor for pre- and post-hurricane disruptions all along the East coast from September 6th-13th as visualized on Graph B. Let’s dive deeper into these stats.


Hurricane Irma

September 10th marked the day Irma made landfall in Florida, and the 11th saw the first repercussions of the damage she left. The percentage of cancelled flights (both arriving and departing) for these days reached 45%, a clear high in comparison to all airports (Graph B).

If we take another look at Graph A, the uptick in delays in advance of landfall become quickly obvious. The period just days ahead of the hurricane was wrought with significant delays as passengers struggled to evacuate and airlines did their best to accommodate the shift of flights, crews and planes.  Even though the city of Orlando didn’t face the worst of the storm, it is a major hub for transporting travelers to and from all parts of Florida’s smaller, regional airports.

Once Irma took its toll on Florida, it made its way into Georgia and the Carolinas, and this is when disruptions became widespread. Georgia is home to the nation’s largest hub, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As the busiest hub, it caused major ripple effects, and you can see that through the BOS, JFK and DCA airports. They reflect an uptick in cancellations during this time even though they were not directly in the storm’s path, essentially displaying the ripple effect.


Proactive Strategy Helps Mitigate Disruption

Even with all of the disruption, specifically at Orlando’s MCO airport, when we look at the comparison of September to August, the percentage of on-time flights is surprisingly within a few percentage points!

What this tells us is that the proactive response of airlines to predicted major disruptions minimizes the negative impact overall.  By grounding flights ahead of time and re-routing crews and planes to strategically place both in the best areas for deployment post-disruption, the airlines enable an expedient return to normal flight schedules as soon as possible.

No matter how far in advance you make your travel plans, routine or unforeseen delays/cancellations can always ruin your pristine itinerary. And while some delays are the norm, other sporadic aviation interruptions can prove difficult for passengers nationwide. Airport hubs and partnered companies can all take certain precautions to be more proactive when such factors come into play. Advances in technology and knowledge of tools such as predictive analytics and business intelligence can aid in the preparation and actions taken when the time comes to handle major disruptions.

We are at the mercy of mother nature, but as exhibited from the managed ripple effect of major flight disruptions this past September, we can implement strategies to help ensure we not only keep travelers safe, but also get them to their destinations mentally sound!

*A flight is classified as delayed only if it delayed by 30 minutes or more.