Airline PR weathers the storm

New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport resumes some service after being closed due to Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012.

New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport resumes some service after being closed due to Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012. (Mehdi Taamallah, AFP/Getty Images )

Hurricane Sandy turned out to be one of the most disruptive forces on air travel in recent memory.

According to FlightStats (flightstats.com), which tracks airline and airport on-time performance, almost one-fifth of flights on U.S. carriers were canceled in the days after Sandy struck the East Coast. By contrast, Hurricane Katrina led to the cancellation of about 2.5 percent of the nation's flights.

The nation's airlines responded to Sandy with near uniformity. Refunds were offered on flights canceled because of the storm. Affected travelers were offered the chance to re-book at later dates with no change fee attached. In extreme cases, like those traveling to or from New York, customers could travel almost six weeks later at no extra charge.

With regular updates to their websites and social media accounts, the airlines also were relatively transparent about what they were offering, as well as the progress being made. There were few, if any, stories of fliers being stranded on tarmacs or in airports for hours at a time.

Believe it: Airlines were largely ahead of Sandy. For an industry that routinely gets abysmal consumer-satisfaction scores, the arrow could finally be pointing up. As Rick Seaney, co-founder and CEO of website FareCompare (farecompare.com), said, "On a scale of 1 to 5, the consumer was treated as a zero for a while. I'd say they've moved up to about a 3."

There are a few reasons for that. One is simply the value of public relations.

"You already know you're going to lose tens of millions of dollars as an airline during an event like (Sandy), so you might as well use it as a way to show off that you're on the side of the customer," Seaney said. "I think the airlines may have lost their way a little bit during the recession and the fuel crisis."

Also, increasingly mobile and ubiquitous technology — Web updates, automated text messages and social media — are simple, effective ways to commune with travelers.

"The real key is good, quality information as quickly as possible," Seaney said. "It's not that a flight is canceled or delayed, it's that you don't know about it in time to do something about it."

Finally, the federal government might have done some good. Last year the Department of Transportation began fining airlines for leaving passengers on tarmacs for extended periods.

"You can have great on-time statistics for a month, but if you have one flight where you strand people for four hours, that's the story that month," said Keith Gerr, a spokesman for FlightStats. "And at the end of the day, if they're going to get fined for stranding people and leaving them on tarmacs, it's not worth it."

In the case of Sandy, it added up to an airline industry that was clearly wounded for a week or so but never completely crippled. Neither were its customers, which Gerr learned firsthand. His in-laws had planned to fly from the East Coast to Portland, Ore., the Tuesday after Sandy struck. Instead, they're coming out after Thanksgiving — no change fee attached.

The Travel Mechanic is dedicated to better, smarter, more fulfilling travel. Thoughts, comments and suggestions can be sent to jbnoel@tribune.com. Include "Travel Mechanic" in the subject line. Follow him on Twitter at @traveljosh.

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