Jump-Starting Air Travel After Everything Went Dark

Michael Steiner shares how Ovation staff went above and beyond to keep business up and running during Hurricane Sandy.

Imagine a resourceful young travel agent hunkered down at a crowded, noisy Starbucks, juggling a cellphone, a laptop and a yellow legal pad while struggling to rearrange a business traveler’s trip home from Beijing to Washington, after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power at both home and office. You now have an idea of how operations were going last week at the national headquarters of Ovation Corporate Travel on Fifth Avenue in Lower Manhattan.

“I was in conference calls going through updates with our people at McDonald’s and Starbucks while they were on phones with their clients,” said Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation, a major business travel management company. Employees without power and unable to work from home “found different Wi-Fi hot spots,” he said.

With flight cancellations piling up by the thousands early in the week, and the effects of the New York and other East Coast airport closings rippling through the national and international air travel system, rearranging trips — especially for business travelers who needed to get home — was a mighty challenge.

“You didn’t necessarily get directly from your original Point A to Point B,” Mr. Steiner said. “Maybe you had Points C and D in between.”

But to a remarkable extent, most travelers eventually got home, even if getting back from an airport by ground transportation turned out to be the toughest part of the trip. On Monday, a week after the storm, the New York area was still strained with severe disruptions in rail and road transportation. But I found a consensus among travel experts that the airlines had generally handled the disaster skillfully. To an extent few would have predicted last week, when Flightstats.com counted the total number of flight cancellations at more than 23,500, the air travel system was within a few days of operating relatively normally. As of noon Monday, a mere 56 domestic flights had been canceled, Flightstats said.

“We had folks 24/7 over the weekend dealing with what we thought was going to be tremendous demand, but it was a little lighter than we expected in terms of rebooking for the next couple of days, and as of this morning we’re seeing normal call activity,” Mr. Steiner said. “People are getting back into gear, and they’re going to be traveling, with business pretty much as usual in the next couple of days.” He credited the airlines with preparing well in advance for the hurricane and managing reasonably well to reaccommodate disrupted air travelers.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away with praise for the airlines, which have set the bar pretty low in terms of what constitutes regular domestic service. To keep planes flying nearly full, preferably with higher-revenue and especially internationally bound customers, airlines have sharply cut flights and reduced service at midsize and smaller domestic airports. So they’re operating a smaller system, and customers expect less of it.

And let’s remember, Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia airports employ more than 60,000 local workers to keep daily operations going. That valiant work force somehow managed to help jump-start the stalled air travel system in the Northeast. They deserve great credit.

But it is also true that carriers have sharply reduced their work forces, meaning that many fliers without access to a travel agent gave up trying to call overwhelmed customer service centers to rebook last week. Many just decided not to go at all.

As the storm approached last Monday, “the vast majority of people were simply canceling their trips,” without planning to rebook, said Tim Husted, the director of travel and transaction services at Carlson Wagonlit Travel. The Global Business Travel Association, a trade group, prepared research last year that indicated that any severe hurricane on the Eastern Seaboard like the one last week would result in about 514,000 individual business trips canceled outright, with a total loss in spending of about $606 million.

But the airlines may have kept their losses in check: Michael Boyd, the president of the airline forecasting firm Boyd Group International, estimated that the bottom-line loss to carriers from the storm was a relatively modest $100 million.

Amtrak service was also slowly returning. On Monday, Amtrak said it restored limited service, subject to rail repairs, on the Acela Express and Northeast Regional routes running from Boston to New York to Washington. Most long-distance trains out of New York City were operating normally, Amtrak said.

On Thursday, I have to fly from Tucson to Mexico City, a distance of about 1,500 miles. The first leg of the flight on United Airlines, for a connection through Houston, departs at 5:45 a.m., which means that I have to drag myself out of bed around 3 a.m. to get to the airport. Both legs of the flight are on cramped little regional jets — you know, the ones with overhead bins the size of car glove compartments and one lavatory in the rear the size of a bathroom on a Winnebago.

So as flying in the Northeast returns to normal, it may be a good idea to hold the Champagne and contemplate that, as welcome as it may be, normal isn’t all that much to get enthusiastic about in air travel these days.