A major storm moving across the country is threatening to disrupt one of the busiest travel days of the year. According to AAA, more than 3 million Americans will take to the sky over the next few days for Thanksgiving. During that time, many flights are expected to be more than 85 percent full.
CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg looked into how JetBlue is preparing for the storm from their command center in Long Island City, N.Y., which is just a few miles away from the airline’s hub at JFK International Airport.
At the system operationscenter, JetBlue employees are trying to stay one step ahead of Mother Nature, while keeping track of 750 daily flights.
"It's definitely a logistical challenge. You cannot move one piece on the chess board without it impacting others,” said Rob Maruster, the airline's chief operating officer. "Let's face it, with 80 percent of our airplanes touching the congested Northeast, we're acutely aware that things can go wrong relatively quickly."
That's exactly what happened on Valentine’s Day back in 2007 during a freak ice storm. JetBlue had hoped the weather would break but when it didn't, thousands of passengers were left stranded, some stuck on the tarmac for more than six hours. Over the following days, the airline was forced to cancel more than 1,100 flights.
"Our lesson learned was when Mother Nature's gonna win, you let her win. You get out of her way. I think today as we sit here, it's not only have a Plan A, but a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D,” said Maruster. “The situational awareness that we had today is so much different than it was even two, three years ago. So from a customer standpoint it's, you know, I'm on this really long taxi out, does anybody know? We know.”
Maruster said JetBlue's own surveys have shown customers would rather have their flights delayed than canceled. Either way, the company's goal is to notify passengers of a decision at least four hours in advance.
"The last thing anyone needs over Thanksgiving with two kids, strollers, and a lot of first-time travelers is real time cancellations in the airport environment. ... People want to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible and they want to get what they paid for," he said.
That's the real challenge. Every airline knows from experience that plan A never always works so they have a menu of contingency plans and the last one is all about triage: What flights do you cancel? Which planes and crews do you take out of position in order to keep other flights in the air? By this time tomorrow as the storm is expected to hit with rain and high winds, JetBlue may have to go with Plan D.