AT&T; Shutdown Shows Achilles' Heel of Air Hubs


The "hub-and-spoke" route system has been a financial boon for the major airlines but, as demonstrated in Tuesday's shutdown of New York-area airports, it can create nightmares for air travelers.

The system that concentrates flights at a few airports makes it nearly impossible to contain disruptions, such as the AT&T; telephone breakdown, and prevent them from spreading to airports around the nation because the flow of traffic from many points depends on conditions at a few major airports.

"Whenever you concentrate flight operations and you have a major disruption, you increase the disruption down the line," said John Nance, an ex-airline pilot and author.

On Tuesday night, a telephone problem that shut down several New York airports--including La Guardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark International--quickly made itself felt at airports as far away as London and Los Angeles.

Hundreds of flights were delayed, rerouted or canceled outright that night. USAir alone had to cancel more than 120 flights and a United 747 from London to New York was delayed nearly six hours.

The telephone problems were resolved within a few hours, but the disruption continued to work its way through the airline route system. USAir and American, which were unable to get their planes and crews to their designated airports, were forced to cancel more flights Wednesday. Some of TWA's transatlantic flights may not get back on schedule until today.

"It pretty much threw a big wrench into our plans," said Jim Faulkner, a spokesman for TWA, which had to cancel 25 domestic flights and delayed more than half a dozen international flights for an average of 4 1/2-hours.

The airlines not only lost revenues from the canceled flights, but they must foot the bill for employee overtime pay and overnight accommodations for stranded travelers.

"'Any situation like that creates problems for all the airlines, without a doubt," Continental Airlines spokesman Ned Walker said. Continental canceled 45 departing flights--loaded with thousands of passengers--from Newark, the center of its East Coast hub-and-spoke system.

The hub-and-spoke system--so named because of the large number of flights that radiate from one airport--at Newark can be found at several major airports across the nation. Airlines like them because they cut costs and more efficiently fill planes with passengers. For example, at Chicago, airlines can gather passengers bound for Los Angeles from Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Des Moines and several Midwest cities and put them on the same plane.

In some cases, the airlines can use the hub system to better handle the aftermath of a disruption in service, said Walker at Continental. The large number of flights leaving from a hub, for example, makes it much easier for a passenger whose flight has been canceled to catch the next regularly scheduled plane, he said.

But the same system can compound and spread disruptions caused by mechanical breakdowns or bad weather, industry observers say. Problems or delays at a major national hubs--such as Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta--can result in nationwide delays and the prospect of passengers missing connecting flights to outlying cities.

Unscheduled Changes The shutdown of three New York airports Tuesday delayed or canceled hundreds of flights. Among them: Airline: American Disruption: Canceled 63 flights Tuesday and another 19 Wednesday Airline: Continental Disruption: Canceled 45 outgoing flights out of Newark with dozens of incoming flights also delayed and canceled Airline: Delta Disruption: Canceled, delayed and rerouted dozens of flights Airline: Northwest Disruption: Canceled a dozen flights and delayed another two dozen Airline: TWA Disruption: Canceled 25 domestic flights, delayed half a dozen international flights Airline: United Disruption: Canceled three dozen flights, delayed numerous others Airline: USAir Disruption: Canceled 123 flights Tuesday and another 40 Wednesday * RELATED STORY, A1

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