Stranded Passengers Are Never on Their Own

Airports prepared for heavy weather, other disruptive incidents that upend travel plans

By Jeff Martinelli

Published February 14, 2020

Read Time: 4 mins


Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of an early spring on Groundhog Day may have created some smiles for those traveling in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, northwestern Pennsylvania’s furry prognosticator is not the only weather forecaster in town.

And there’s a funny thing about weather reports: they don’t always agree. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Farmer’s Almanac’s 2019-20 winter forecast.

“This could feel like the never-ending winter,” writes Almanac editor Janice Stillman. “Particularly in the Midwest and east to the Ohio Valley and Appalachians, where wintery weather will last well into March and even through the first days of spring.”

Oh, lovely.

A winter like the one the almanac is predicting can be tough for frequent flyers whose worst nightmare is being teamed up with Del Griffith (“Polka!”) of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” on an everlasting trip home.

Fear not, because when nasty weather strikes, airports do their best to keep planes flying and passengers comfortable. There are times, however, when the storms become too fierce and the weather leaves passengers in the terminal for hours.

“We understand situations like that are difficult for our customers,” said Pittsburgh International Airport Deputy Fire Chief Tom Bonura. “And it’s times like that we’ll activate our stranded passengers plan.”

Airports develop stranded passenger plans not only to provide for the comfort of their customers, but to also keep a calm atmosphere in the terminal. And depending on where the airport is located – or the nature of the situation – stranded passenger plans can vary.

At PIT, the stranded passenger plan was developed in coordination with multiple departments, including Terminal Operations, Customer Experience and the Fire Department.

Bonura explained that PIT has a three-level plan which addresses passengers’ needs in different situations. Level Three, the lowest level of the plan, is the one most likely to be activated.

“An example would be if one flight was canceled and, for whatever reason, had lots of passengers who lived a considerable distance from the airport and those passengers could not get a ride back home,” he said. “In this case, our firefighters patrol the terminals and provide blankets and pillows, and maybe water and snacks, to those stranded.”

Brian Stashak, PIT’s Vice President of Terminal and Landside Operations, checks the airport’s inventory of supplies for stranded passengers. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

A Level Two activation would be a little more involved. Additional staff would be allocated to assist with passenger comfort, and customer service staff would compile a list of area hotels and available rooms.

“Imagine a strong, late-morning snow storm which results in a considerable amount of afternoon flights being canceled,” Bonura said. “Some local passengers may be able to drive back home early on, but as the day and storm progresses, fewer people can leave. Then we have to really focus on handling some areas of the terminal that may be crowded.”

So, if Levels Three and Two don’t sound all that great, what would a Level One activation look like?

“Think of ‘Snowmageddon,’” Bonura laughed, referring to the Blizzard of 2010, one of only a few times, albeit only for about an hour, that PIT has ever closed.

“In a situation where a mass of guests are stranded for multiple hours and overnight, our plan addresses keeping concessions open, providing water and snacks, blankets, pillows and toiletries packs,” he said. “We also recently purchased 200 new cots that, if needed, would be provided for a comfortable night’s sleep.”

Bonura was quick to caution that it’s possible to be stranded any time of the year, not only during winter.

“Hurricanes, major power outages in hub airports, and a volcano in Iceland are just some of the situations we have seen passengers become stranded over the years,” he said. “Although some of the situations were foreseeable, others weren’t.”

Bad weather and incidents at large hub airports in Chicago and Atlanta can have a domino effect on mid-sized airports like Pittsburgh. It’s a situation that occurs at occasionally at San Antonio International Airport, located in Texas near Houston and Dallas, both home to large hub airports.

“Weather there presents the greatest challenge due to diverted traffic,” said Ken Whittaker, airport integrated control center manager at San Antonio International Airport. “Weather at either of those locations will result in diversions all over the region to include international arrivals.

“The carriers here have generally been good about taking care of their customers but occasionally we‘ve had folks that weren’t accommodated. In those situations, we might reach out to our City Office of Emergency Management to help with transportation to a shelter, but most times people don’t want to leave the airport for fear of missing a flight the next day. In those situations, we simply make them as comfortable as we can.”

At Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, sometimes making passengers comfortable means evacuating the terminals.

“We learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina,” said Reed Barnes, customer service manager at MSY. “Some people and guests were allowed to stay but then it ended up being a mess. Now, when there is any hurricane, no relief shelters are permitted south of Lake Pontchartrain so everyone has to leave.”

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