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Purser: Murphy’s Law

Things go very wrong at three North American airlines – one of them being our very own.


October 1, 2007
By Richard Purser

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Does American engineer Edward A. Murphy’s famous law – anything that
can go wrong will go wrong – apply to airlines? Surely not. If it did,
we’d all be dead by now. But Christmas holiday travellers in the US
must have wondered about it when sudden chaos broke out in the
operations of two major airlines.

Transportation
in the northeastern quadrant of the US was already suffering from
weather problems when, starting December 23, record numbers of US
Airways employees called in sick, mainly at Philadelphia International
Airport, causing about 470 flights to be cancelled over the next few
days and baggage to pile up in heaps. Then, the following night,
Comair, a Connection carrier of Delta Air Lines, suffered a total
computer breakdown and had to cancel all its flights. This was no small
deal. Comair, although a ‘regional’ carrier operating primarily out of
Delta’s Cincinnati hub, has a vast route network that sprawls from
Bangor in the northeast to Houston in the southwest and from
Minneapolis/St. Paul in the northwest to Nassau in the southeast. It
operates 1,100 flights a day.

The messes took several days to
clear up; meanwhile, American television viewers were treated to
widespread scenes of mobs of distressed passengers and mountains of
backed-up luggage. The spectacle may have drawn a chortle from viewers
sitting in warm comfort at home, but there was nothing funny about it
for the airlines, and certainly not for the president of Comair who
resigned on January 17 “to pursue other opportunities,” in the
time-honoured phrase. (He was replaced by the CEO of Delta Connection,
which oversees Comair and Delta’s other regional subsidiaries, Atlantic
Coast Airlines, Atlantic Southeast Airlines and SkyWest.)

It
wasn’t funny for Delta, the big Atlanta-based intercontinental carrier
which lost US$5.2 billion in 2004, the worst performance in its 75-
year history, and narrowly averted a bankruptcy filing last fall.

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It wasn’t funny for Canada’s Bombardier; Comair is heavily reliant on its Regional Jets.

And
it wasn’t funny for US Airways, a national carrier which was struggling
in bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years and whose
demise would be devastating to its hub airports such as Charlotte and
Philadelphia. The carrier had to operate several extra luggage-only
flights from Philadelphia to its bag-processing facility in Charlotte
to get the stuff sorted out and redirected to the proper destinations.

Canadians
who might be tempted to find amusement in the fiascos to the south were
brought up short on January 19 when a wildcat strike at Air Canada made
a hash of operations at Pearson International Airport’s new Terminal 1.

The late Mr. Murphy’s reach evidently stretches across the border.


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