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Even though it’s March, winter weather continues to wreak havoc on transportation systems nationwide. This week, a storm once again caused WMATA to cancel bus service, MARC and VRE to suspend train service and airlines to cancel thousands of flights. We consider the factors that transit providers weigh when deciding when to cancel — and restart — service.
- Charles Leocha Director, Consumer Travel Alliance
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. Coming up later in the hour, the rights of prisoners. But, first, the National Park Service announced today that the Cherry Blossoms should peak between April 8 and April 12, indicating that spring may actually someday occur. But it sure doesn't look like it this week. For many residents across the region, offices and schools were closed yesterday.
MR. MARC FISHERBut if you had somewhere you had to be, good luck getting there. Metro bus service was shuttered. Both Maryland and Virginia's commuter rails were closed. And if you'd been looking forward to a getaway that would take you away from all of this to a warmer climate, you were likely out of luck. The region's airports were especially hard hit. At Reagan National, only about a quarter of scheduled flights actually took off. This is all just the latest round of winter weather travel delays and headaches in a season when they have been piling up.
MR. MARC FISHERHere to give us some insights into how decisions are made both to cancel transportation services and when to restart them are: Charles Leocha, he's the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, joining us by phone. Welcome.
MR. CHARLES LEOCHAHi. How are you doing?
FISHERGood. And Martin Di Caro is WAMU's transportation reporter. And, Martin, if you can't get to the airport, whether you're flight is delayed becomes more of a moot point. The roads in and around the District seemed to be kind of a mixed bag this morning, with some down to the pavement and others packed with snow and ice. What is the plan of attack that jurisdictions follow to keep them clear?
MR. MARTIN DI CAROWell, they -- when it's this bad, they essentially exhaust everything that they have at their disposal. And I have just some fresh figures here from MDOT and VDOT. But to answer your question as far as the plan of attack, well they're obviously in constant consultation with the National Weather Service and they're monitoring forecasts. And this goes for Metro, for VDOT, for MDOT, for DDOT, for the Department of Public Works here in D.C., which is in charge of plowing the roads. And they try to attack it ahead of time by pretreating roads, if possible.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROOf course, if there's heavy rainfall, they can't pretreat, because the pretreatment will be washed away, and that did happen for this most recent storm. And they, of course, go after the primary roads, secondary roads and then those famous tertiary roads after. But their priority is to clear the highways and the main roads first, especially when they're getting snow like we've had in these last two storms, about an inch an hour. So just how much all of this is costing us: well, in Northern Virginia alone, VDOT started the year with a $63 million budget.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROBy the time they're done cleaning up this storm, they will be over $150 million. That's $100 million over budget in Northern Virginia alone to clear up snow.
FISHERSo where does that money come from?
CAROWell, it comes from -- well, you know, I did not have a chance to ask exactly where the money comes from, but they do have money in the...
FISHERSomewhere they have to find $100 million.
CAROYes. Yes. There is money in the budget to do that, but they do run a loss when it comes to their snow, you know, snow clean up. In Maryland, the State Highway Administration, they've spent $123 million statewide. Their budget was $46 million. So we're looking at $100 million over budget there. For Metro, yesterday, they had about 550,000 fewer trips than normal. The previous Monday they had 670,000, yesterday 132,000. And they had no bus service. So they lost about $400,000 in fare revenue for no bus, and about $1.5 million in rail revenue because they had such a smaller amount of people on the rails.
FISHERYou can join our conversation about the transportation impact of this and other storms by calling 1 (800) 433-8850, or email us at Kojo@WAMU.org. And, Charlie Leocha, in years past, airlines have dealt with the fallout from not cancelling flights. Travelers get stuck on the tarmacs; people get stranded at the airports. And so it seems that the airlines have shifted strategy and now do a lot of preemptive cancellations. Is that your sense? And how does that system work?
LEOCHAWell, it's more than my sense, it's a fact. And that's happened for a number of reasons. Up until about, oh, four years ago, the airlines really didn't have a way to reach out to all of their passengers. So the only way a passenger could really find out if their flight was cancelled or changed was, A, to pick up the phone and call and that took a proactive act, or they would go to the airport and look up on the board and say, Oh my goodness, my flight's delayed. And then they would sit there all day long and eventually the flight might be -- it might go. But it might not, it might be cancelled.
LEOCHAAnd so the airlines came up with a system, once they began to collect cell phone numbers and emails, where they could now reach out to passengers and let them know what's going on. So they started doing that. And the other thing that happened at the same time is that flight rescheduling software was developed and perfected. And I don't know if anybody was rescheduled about four years ago. If you were, the system was very, very clunky. But, now, they've really tuned up this system and you'll get a message on your cell phone saying, your flight's not leaving today.
LEOCHAYou're scheduled to leave tomorrow at ten o'clock. If you like it, don't do anything. If you don't like it, give us a call. So we have technology now allowing the airlines to be proactive and cancel flights. And that's one of the big changes that has taken place over the last four years.
FISHERAnd are they making those decisions about cancellations -- is that based on their own costs as an airline or the convenience of the travelers? There was a fascinating cover story in TIME Magazine last week about the people who make those decisions. And it seemed as if a lot of people -- the primary concern for the airlines was sometimes the number of people on an individual flight who had connections to make, and so if there were six people on one flight who had a connection and two on another, they would actually send the flight with more folks who have connections to make.
FISHERAnd then the other factor that seemed to be very important to them was the number of crew members who were shuttling from one airport to another to get in place for a future flight. Is it your sense that that is a travelers convenience or the costs to the airlines that seem to govern more of the cancellation decisions?
LEOCHAWell, I think that the number one thing we have to realize is -- and everybody who flies these days is getting it in their face -- that the airlines want to be a profitable business. So making money is number one. Taking care of their passengers seems to be job number two or three. So I think that what we end up with is, as described in that TIME Magazine article, a flight with -- flying from a smaller airport that has a lot of people with higher airfares, will probably go before a flight from a leaser destination, like Orlando, which has a lot of low-cost passengers onboard.
LEOCHASo they do, in fact, take, you know, take all of that into account. And that's also a new development based upon the ability that the airlines now have with computers to assess which flights are the most profitable. So, in a way, consumers are losers. When it comes to the point of view where they have the automatic cancellations and the automatic notifications, that's a two-edged sword. On one hand, it really is an improvement for consumers that we don't have to go and sit all day long at the airport.
LEOCHABut, on the other hand, these delays and the fact that the airlines are now flying at such high capacity, it means that sometimes get out of the airport and you can't catch your next flight for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours. And that can be a real problem.
FISHERWell, let's -- since airlines have recently or over the last years come to feel almost more like bus lines than the elegant airlines of the past, let's turn to actual buses on the street. And, Martin Di Caro, in terms of Metro bus lines, the initial word this morning was that just some routes would be back in service. Then most of them started service around seven o'clock this morning. How does Metro decide when it's okay to start a bus route and how do they coordinate with the folks who keep the -- try to keep the streets clear?
CAROWell, the first thing they do is monitor forecasts like everyone else. And, when it becomes apparent that the snow is going to fall faster than the city's ability to clear it, they have judgment calls to make. And that is why there are different tiers of limited service. There's a complete cancellation, where they feel it's just simply too hazardous for any bus -- any vehicle for that matter -- to be out on the road, because of course everyone was encouraged to stay off the road yesterday. And then there are limited levels of service, that was put into place this morning, where most of their routes were in service.
CAROBut there were snow detours in place. So people may have to walk an extra block or two because the bus is not going to stop for them on a really steep hill going up or down. You may recall, in New York City a few years back, when that cities transit agency kind of got caught unprepared for the storm. They sent buses out into the snow. The buses got stuck. And then the buses they sent out after to rescue those people, they got stuck. Metro does not want to take any chances there.
CAROSo, during the course of a night -- say, preceding yesterday morning -- Metro has its street supervisors out in SUVs driving around, seeing how much progress is being made keeping the roads clear. And if they decide that there's good enough progress, they'll reopen certain bus lines. As of one o'clock today, all bus routes were back open, with some minor modifications. And all that information is WMATA's website, WMATA.com.
FISHERAnd Metro rail did stay running yesterday. And you mentioned that ridership was way down.
FISHERIs there -- were they running outdoors as well as just the indoor stations?
CAROWell, they were supposed to be. There were some problems with the cold weather. You bring up a good point about coordination. Yesterday's call-off of bus service happened before the federal government decided to keep their people home. Sometimes Metro trails the federal government's decision. There is, of course, coordination between all of these agencies. There's certainly no reason to run a full-fledged rail service when you're only going to have 30,000 people in a morning rush hour. So there will be fewer a-car trains and maybe fewer trains on certain routes.
CAROHowever, Metrorail was running on a normal schedule this morning. But whenever there's extreme cold, it always wreaks havoc with old rail cars and tracks that have been exposed to those temperatures all night long without trains running on them. And there was a Red Line problem this morning out near Shady Grove, 25- to 35-minute delays started by a single door problem on a single rail car on a single train, delayed thousands of people for 25 to 30 minutes standing on cold platforms.
FISHERCharlie Leocha, obviously Metro's had a rough time lately, but this has been apparently the worst year for flight cancellations since the U.S. Department of Transportation started keeping statistics more than 20 years ago. Is there anything that travelers can do when booking travel or preparing for it, to minimize the hassle and the risk of being stuck in an airport for many hours?
LEOCHAWell, I think that there's not a whole bunch that we can do in terms of action and thought. We make our reservations months and months in advance. And then all of a sudden the weather is definitely unpredictable. People who made reservations in advance and they were flying the day after the storm, they got to move just with no problem. And people who happened to have their reservation made on the day of the storm were facing problems for the next couple of days. So there's not a whole bunch that we can do as individuals.
LEOCHAOne of the things that can start happening is that a lot of the onward connecting flights -- if you're connecting with, say, from American Airlines on to a United Airlines flight, and you're American Airlines flight is cancelled because of snow somewhere, but you're connecting, let's say, in Dallas, Texas or Orlando, moving on with a different airline -- in that case, once you cancel one flight, you end up being responsible for cancellation fees or change fees when it comes to the other flights. And a lot of people end up with nonrefundable hotel rooms, and they end up having to pay those prices as well.
LEOCHAAnd so one of the things that we've been discussing is exploring ways that the airlines can let other airlines know that this was an airline problem -- kind of like the old days when you used to get a note from your doctor and you could get out of your flight because you were sick. Well, people abused that and eventually the airlines closed that loophole.
LEOCHABut this is a system where if airlines' airline communication -- and we're thinking that maybe the airlines talking to each other might help the public a little bit and ease some of the pain and the financial stress of these delays.
FISHEROkay. Before we wrap up, Martin Di Caro, when all other means of transportation fail there's always your own feet. And is there -- but that can be quite treacherous when your neighbors don't clear their sidewalks. The district at least has a law that requires residents to clear their sidewalks of snow within eight daylight hours of the end of the storm. Do you have any knowledge of any time when they've ever enforced that?
CAROIn my two years here not really. Sidewalks are a really mixed bag this morning, let's just put it -- to put it kindly where the old -- you know, and of course there's a lot of slop and ice and plows out there, you know, pushing snow in different directions. So you're not going to get a crystal clear sidewalk. But there are some places where you can see there was -- no shovel was taken to the pavement.
FISHERPretty rough out there. Martin Di Caro is WAMU's transportation reporter and we're also joined by Charles Leocha who's director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. Thanks very much to both of you. When we come back after a short break, we will move on to the question of prisoners' rights. And do prisoners -- should prisoners have the right to make a cheap phone call to their families? We'll talk about that next. I'm Marc Fisher and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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