It is no secret that last week was a nightmare for United Airlines, but unlike the meltdown Southwest Airlines experienced over Christmas, much of the dilemma the airline found itself in at Newark Airport was largely due to external factors outside of its control.
First, the airline's major hub in Newark (EWR) got struck by severe storms that prevented aircraft from departing in certain patterns. Usually, that is not an issue as there are other ways of departing the New York City airspace. The storms, however, siphoned off nearly all takeoff patterns to the point that most of United's operations were canceled or delayed (40% faced delays), especially flights that departed to the west.
United frequently runs into gridlock issues at Newark due to weather, among other problems, and is often constrained by a lack of gates. The lack of gates becomes a major issue in bad weather when arrivals have nowhere to go if departing flights get delayed at the gate. All airports in the New York City area tend to face similar capacity problems during bad weather, but United is the largest airline in the New York City area and runs a major hub operation at Newark, and as such, was hit the hardest.
Due to the delays, crew members were left displaced and customers, as well as crews, often had to spend extra days at Newark as a result since the meltdown lasted over four days. CEO Scott Kirby noted in a letter published this weekend that the airline is severely understaffed on crew schedulers which made it difficult to reassign personnel as the delays got worse. Staffing shortages were particularly acute as well within the FAA as a lack of controllers also decimated operations at Newark.
United itself does not find itself in as much hot water as Southwest found itself in earlier in the year although CEO Scott Kirby is facing considerable backlash for flying in a private jet from Teterboro (TEB) to Denver (DEN) because he could not get a flight on United out of Newark.
However, the airline is being particularly generous with customers who had to change plans because of the fiasco. The airline announced that it is giving upwards of 30,000 MileagePlus miles to customers. External valuations peg each point to be worth about 1.2 cents, meaning that 30,000 miles could be redeemed for around $360 depending on how the miles are redeemed. While United did not state how many customers received the 30,000 miles, the airline did say that any customer who had a trip between June 24 and June 30 and was delayed overnight or who never reached their final destination at all should be receiving the miles.
Despite giving out miles to customers who were hit the hardest, United has not clarified whether it will fully reimburse customers for expenses resulting from their travel being delayed, something that Southwest was quick to do in the aftermath of its Christmas meltdown. While United claims it has been providing credits and vouchers, the airline has not stated anything about providing any cash reimbursement.
Fortunately, with the weather improving somewhat, United is on the road to recovery. 30,000 miles certainly is not a small sum of miles either and it is good to see airlines being more proactive towards their customers in situations like this. As Scott Kirby acknowledged in his memo to employees, many of the challenges can be blamed on external factors like understaffing at the FAA and poor weather, but United needs to make major changes to the ways that crews are scheduled and add gate capacity at Newark. It appears United has more determination than Southwest to fix those problems, but it remains to see how battle-tested United will be the next time weather causes another New York City travel meltdown.
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