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A Behavioral Framework for Managing

Massive Airline Flight Disruptions through

Crisis Management, Organization
and Organization Learning
Dr. Tulinda Larsen
Doctorate of Management
University of Maryland University College
March 2013

Problem Statement
Airlines continue to mismanage massive flight disruptions,
despite government intervention, impacts on customer
service, and related costs.

This study argues that by considering massive

flight disruptions through a crisis management
lens and layering organization development
(OD) interventions with organization learning
(OL), airlines can improve the management of
events that result in massive flight disruptions to
improve passenger satisfaction, reduce costs,
and mitigate additional government

Behavioral approach
Research Question:
How can airlines adapt
organization development (OD) interventions
and organization learning (OL) processes
to better manage massive flight disruptions to increase
passenger satisfaction, minimize costs, and mitigate
government intervention?

Evidence Based Research (EBR) and Systematic Review
Management research approach adapted from health care industry
A systematic review and analysis of existing research to identify gaps and to produce
new knowledge
Scholarly research, case studies, white papers, dissertations, etc.

Four primary steps:

1. Establish research questions
2. Identify literature on the selected topic
3. Filter the resulting literature based on criteria, and
4. Evaluate the selected literature
I supplemented EBR through discussions with airline operations experts and
visits to airline operations centers

The missing management perspective

Previous research needs a real-world management perspective
Massive flight disruption literature falls into four dimensions:
Economics and financial cost
(Ball, et al., 2006; Jenkins, 2010)

Tactical decision management (methods and tools)

(Irrgang, 1995; Rogers & Hoyme, 2000; Zang, 2006; Jenkins, 2010; Hoyt, et al., 2010: Bruce, 2011)

Robust schedule planning and recovery

(Baker, 1995; Clark, Lettovsky & Smith, 2000; DeArmon, Wanke, Beaton, & Miller, 2000)

Impact on the travelling public

(Ball, et al., 1995; Mether & Rospenda, 2000, Marks & Jenkins, 2010; OIG 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, 2010; GAO, 2011; U.S. Senate
JEC, 2008)

This study focuses on behavioral dimensions to the airline management of

massive flight disruptions.
Disruption management is a human process based on judgments in Ops
Center and technology based decision-making tools

Multiple stakeholders are involved

The FAA is responsible for air traffic control in the U.S.

Controls aircraft from departure movement area to arrival
FAA, airports and airlines manage aircraft on the ground
Boundaries can be gray between FAA, airport and airline
jurisdiction, particularly during massive flight disruptions

Airlines can manage how their operations prepare for, and react
to, reduced airspace system capacity resulting from weather
and congestion

Despite sophisticated decision support tools, no single model

has solved the complex operational issues at the time of
massive flight disruptions
Airlines poorly manage massive flight disruptions
Excessive cancellations vs. prolonged recovery

What are flight disruptions?

There is little consensus about the definition of massive disruptions

Flight disruptions include delays, cancellations, long tarmac delays,

and denied boardings.

Office of Inspector

A flight is considered delayed if its actual gate arrival time

is 15 or more minutes after its published scheduled arrival time.

United Airlines

Irregular Operations occur when unplanned flight disruption requires

involuntary itinerary change [not] requested by passenger.
IRROPS take place with little or no advance warning.

American Airlines

[A]nything not on-time, even a single flight. But typically it means some amount
of flights or portion of the network that is experiencing non-routine operations
such as ATC, weather, security, labor, or mechanical issues.

Airports Council

Extraordinary events, not falling under an Emergency Operation Category (e.g.

crash, hijackings, bomb threat) which disrupt optimized flight schedules and
negatively impacts the normal flow of passengers.

My definition of massive disruption

A disruptive event that results in multiple flights
being delayed, diverted to another airport,
or canceled throughout the airline route network.
These events are weather or natural disaster related and include
snowstorms, thunderstorms, hurricanes, tropical storms, and volcanic
eruptions. Does not include Emergency Events, such as crash, terrorism,
highjackinsg, bomb-threat, etc.

Massive flight disruptions negatively impact customer

service, create additional costs for airlines,
and have led to government intervention.

It all began in Detroit 1999

In early January 1999, a blizzard blanketed
the Detroit airport.
Thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers
found themselves stranded on planes for
hours -- some without food, water or
functioning lavatories
The House and Senate conducted hearings
and the Office of Inspector General
investigated the customer service issues
Congress, the Department of Transportation
(DOT), and the industry worked together to
implement a voluntary program known as the
Airline Customer Service Commitment

The 1999 Detroit snowstorm

kick-started airline
mismanagement of massive
flight disruptiona and triggered
regulatory intervention.

Voluntary programs did not prevent passengers from

being stranded on aircraft
December 29, 2006


100+ flights from DFW were diverted due to severe weather.

Flight diverted to Austin exceed airport capacity. Passengers trapped.

February 14, 2007


Ice storm at JFK caused 355 canceled flights and 6 divert flights.
10 aircraft were frozen to the ground and passengers were trapped

December 22, 2008


Snowstorm in SEA caused massive flight cancelations

and stranded 9,000 passengers.

August 25, 2009


Thunderstorms and tornados in Midwest caused

flight diversion to airport with no Continental support.

December 24-28, 2010


Massive snowstorm causes flight cancelations and

shut airports in the Northeast.

May 29, 2011

American Eagle

Bad weather in Chicago caused 15 flights with 608 passengers

to be held for 3+ hrs, resulted in DOT Fine under new rules.

October 29, 2011

JetBlue, American

Early snowstorm forced flights to be diverted to Hartford

where JetBlue and American Airlines passengers
were trapped on aircraft for more than 7 hours.


More examples of massive flight disruptions




October 2830, 2012


Hurricane Sandy shut down 9 airports and resulted in massive flight

disruptions with more than 20,000 flights cancelled.

November 7, 2012

American, Delta,
United, US Airways,
and JetBlue Airways

Noreaster dumped snow on NY, NJ, CT, Boston and Philadelphia,

disrupting operations and causing more than 20,000 flight disruptions.

December 26, 2012

American Airlines, Snowstorm Euclid disrupted travel in the Midwest and Northeast, and 2,100
Delta Air Lines,
flight cancellations.
United Airlines, and
US Airways


Mismanagement drove DOT intervention

Contingency plan for lengthy tarmac delays

Air carriers will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours.
For all flights, assurance that the air carrier will provide adequate food and water no later than two hours
after the aircraft leaves the gate or lands.
For all flights, assurance of operable lavatory facilities and medical attention, if needed
Assurance of sufficient resources to implement the plan
Assurance that the plan has been coordinated with airport authorities
Retention of records related to lengthy tarmac delays for two years
Customer Service Plan
Meet customers essential needs during lengthy tarmac delays
Self auditing of plan and retention of records with results made available to U.S. Department of
Notice and Contract of Carriage
Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays must be included in Contract of Carriage with air passengers
Response to Consumer Problems
An employee is to be designated the advocate for passengers interests and is responsible for monitoring
the effects of flight delays, flight cancelations, and lengthy tarmac delays on passengers. This employee is
to be included in the decision-making at the time of Massive flight disruptions as to which flights are
cancelled and which will be delayed the longest.
Unrealistic or Deceptive Scheduling
Chronically delayed flight means any domestic flight that is operated at least10 times a month and arrives
more than 30 minutes late, including cancelation, more than 50 percent of the time during that month.
Chronically delayed flights are considered unfair or deception practice, an unfair method of competition, and
are subject to enforcement.

Source: USDOT Final Rule Enhancing Airline Passenger Protection (2009)


The stakes are high - $27,500 per passenger

ORD May 2011: massive disruption that resulted in government fines
Textbook case of airport gridlock and management disarray
Aircraft held at gate, arriving aircraft had no gate, flight crews
trapped on in-bound aircraft
Hefty $900K fines imposed by DOT on American Eagle


Operations decision-making flow begins with

airline involvement
Organizational Level
Examples of Decisions
Vision, Objectives, Goal

Top Management

Management Science
Models and Simulation
Programmed Decisions

SVP Operations

Management Science Approach

Operations Research
Programmed Decision Making
Non-programmed Decision Making
Decision Support Tools
Individual Decision Making
Rational/ Bounded Rationality
Decision Making
Judgment / heuristics

Operations Center Mgr.

Aircraft Dispatch/Flight
Crew Dispatch
Maintenance Coordination
Airport Ramp Control
Airport Staff/Services
Passenger Services

Operation style, e.g. Mainline,

Low Cost, Regional, Charter
Network Carrier versus Linear
Route System
Domestic versus International
Fleet Planning
Schedule Planning &
(at lower level in Marketing)
Flight Operations and
Maintenance Control System
Crew Scheduling
Load Planning
Customer Service services
Airport/Ramp Operations
Network Operations
Flight tracking
Crew tracking
Maintenance tracking
Ground services coordination
Passenger routings


Flights are planned 6 months prior to departure,

then handed over to Operations Center
6 Months Prior To Departure

48 hours
prior to


A symphony orchestra (Baker)

Numerous individuals performing
interconnected tasks
Requires a combination of technology
and human decision-making

Interconnected factors resulting from

massive flight disruptions include:
Passenger misconnects
Crew members out of place or limits
Aircraft in the wrong place


ra ol
Ai on

Repo raft


Disruption to maintenance
Impact to subsequent flights

ew le
Cr edu


Availa ft


Extremely complex operations



Airlines are multifaceted

rk e


Massive flight disruptions become responsibility

of Operation Center






se ave ted
Pa T rup

Lost Revenue;
Increased Costs

Gro rts/
Ser nd


Operations Center is focused on day-of-operation

Control Center

Crew Scheduling

Control Center
Passenger and
Payload Flow


Airlines have different names for Operations Centers

American is transitioning to Integrated Operations Center (IOC), renovating
existing DFW infrastructure to include maintenance, currently in Tulsa
Operations center is moving to back-up facility
January 2013 during construction
Delta recently renovated the Operations Control Center (OCC)
in Atlanta following the merger with Northwest
State-of-the-art facility employing best practices of both airlines
United recently opened its Network Operations Center (NOC)
52,000 sq. ft. facility in Chicagos Willis Tower
Moved Continentals operations to Chicago
US Airways Operations Control Center (OCC) is in Pittsburgh
Will be moved to Dallas following merger with American


Recovery from massive flight disruptions should

not be solely Operations Center responsibility
Calm in Other


Stress In Ops Center


Massive flight disruptions qualify as crises

Crisis is any situation that has the potential to affect long-term

confidence in an organization or product, or which may interfere with its
ability to continue operating normally

Despite differing definitions of crisis, there is consensus on its major

characteristics. These include:
Events that have low probability of occurring, but have a major
potential impact on an organization and individuals both inside
and outside the organization
There is uncertainty about resolution; and
There is a limited time in which to act.

Crisis management is a systematic attempt for management to

prevent a crisis and mitigate impacts


Carole LaLonde Framework

My study adapts LaLondes crisis management framework to airline
management of massive flight disruptions, combining methods of
Crisis Management and Organizational Development

Crisis Management
Collaborative structures
OD Intervention
Mainly techno-structural

Crisis Management
Assess capacity to prepare
Risk Analysis
OD Intervention
Integrate into corporate strategy
Include all stakeholders

Crisis Management
Sensitive to external environment
Rapid decision-making and risk-taking
OD Intervention
Leadership development
Coaching & Training

- Individual
- System

Crisis Management
Civic behavior
Role of media
OD Intervention

Source, Lalonde, 2011


Four principles of crisis management

Planning and preparedness

Risk assessment
Developing crisis management plan
Prepare and train personnel
Allocate resources
After event assessment

Sensitivity to external environment
Adaptive to stages of crisis (pre-,
during, post)
Foster rapid decision making
Courage to take risks


Communication, internal & external

Development of collaborative structures
Development of technology solutions
Crisis cells with multidisciplinary
resources and expertise

Civil Society
Accounting for citizen and government
involvement, impacts, and responses
Recognizing role of media


OD and OL applied to Crisis Management

Organization development (OD) is a system-wide application and transfer of
behavioral science knowledge to planned development, improvement, and
reinforcement of the strategies, structures, and processes that lead to
organization effectiveness
Both culture and operational soundness
A set of methods to address issues of changes, process, and relationships
Open systems approach
Organizational learning (OL) is the process of creating, acquiring, and
transferring knowledge, and at modifying behavior to reflect new knowledge and
Integration of the acquired knowledge and lessons learned
Double feed-back loops to address core issues
Goal: Avoid repeating same errors and minimize impact


This Study Expanded Lalonde Framework

Crisis Management Principles











Individual/Controller; Expertise; Innovative; Resourceful

System/Airline; Responsive; Focused; Learning

Improved Customer Satisfaction

Minimized costs
Mitigated government intervention


Proposition 1 Planning
From an OD intervention perspective, planning includes the quantification and assessment of
vulnerabilities using probabilities. From an OL perspective, planning includes identifying trigger
events using the review and analysis of previous events.

Proposition 2 Coordination- Techno-Structure

From OD intervention perspective, coordination includes collaboration across different
departments and the development of technology solutions (e.g., situational analysis). From an
OL perspective, coordination includes the creation of a learning environment that fosters

Proposition 3 Leadership
From an OD intervention perspective, leadership includes training and coaching. From an OL
perspective, leadership includes fostering a culture of innovation, learning, and knowledge

Proposition 4 Civil Society

From an OD intervention perspective, civil society includes improving communications with
passengers, the public, and governments. From an OL perspective, civil society includes
learning from customers and complying with governmental rules (e.g., the 3-Hour Tarmac Rule).


Propositions 5 & 6

Proposition 5 Resiliency
Adapting OD interventions with OL processes leads to resiliency. Resiliency
for an individual is the ability to leverage his or her expertise by being
innovative and resourceful in addressing the issues that result from a crisis
or unexpected-yet-recurring events. Resiliency for an organization is the
ability to return to normal operations as quickly as possible with the least
impact on operations, customers, and resources. The organization needs to
be responsive to triggers and changes in the environment, to focus on the
situation, and to be open to learning from the event.

Principle 6 Sustainable Results

Proposition 6 is essentially the feedback loops within the conceptual
framework moving OL processes back into planning, leadership, technology
coordination, and civil society to ensure that the changes driven by crises or
unexpected-yet-recurring events that lead to operational disruptions are


Adapted to airline operations management

Planning and preparedness

Assess vulnerabilities
Identify triggers
Collaboration across airline
Double-loop assessment
following massive flight disruption

Integrate decision-making tools

(aircraft, crew, airport facilities,
Strive for real-time situational
awareness for all resources
Collaboration within Operations
Center and with other

Top management commitment to
fostering collaboration across the
airline and innovation
Crisis cells with multidisciplinary
resources and expertise
Rapid decision-making and risk

Coordination and TechnoStructure

Civil Society
Communicate with passengers
Social media, direct text/email,

Communicate with media

Social media, direct text/email,


Planning and preparedness

Quantify and develop a strategic
plan based on probabilities of
massive flight disruptions

Seasonality of Massive Flight Delays

Develop entire airline strategy

around crisis management tools
Include all stakeholders

Identify triggers
FAA System Ops Calls
Historical analysis of weather
Action plan based on triggers
Risk-taking to preempt heroic

Source: GAO, 2011 Average for 2001-2010

There are about 60 days a year in the U.S. when

flight delays potentially result in massive disruptions.
More than 50 percent of disruptions in flight
operations are clustered in 20 days each year
Airlines should adjust planned schedules and
resources (aircraft, crew, airport facilities) accordingly

Organization Learning through feedback loops

Collaboration between other departments and Operations Center
Rethink operational models, routines, and cultures feedback!




Feedback Loop


Socio-technical Integration of technology with

human decision-making, including other departments
Integration of resource
decision-making tools

Aircraft maintenance programs

Crew scheduling
Passenger re-accommodation
Real time situational analysis

Collaborative integration of
Operations Center with other
Massive flight disruptions are not just
an operations center problem
Impact entire airline

- Revenue metrics
- Cost metrics
Marketing Data
- Passenger itinerary and
- Passenger satisfaction
- Competitive market position

Operations Center

Maintenance Operations Control

Center (MOCC)
- Aircraft maintenance restrictions

- Aircraft and crew
- Crew restrictions

Station Operations Control Center

Passengers on-board
Ground service availability
gates, catering, baggage, fuel


Commitment to finding new recovery strategies

must start with top management

Commitment to fostering collaboration across the airline

Corporate culture to treat massive flight disruptions as a crisis

Create Massive Flight Disruption Crisis Cells

Draw from across the airline
Lessons learned from previous massive flight disruptions
Identify resources for response
Debrief and learning after event

Coaching and training on rapid decision making

Assume some risks

Use OR resources to respond to triggers and preempt heroic solutions
once massive flight delays develop

Learn from airline Emergency Response Programs for catastrophic events,

i.e. terrorism, crash, high-jacking, bomb threat, etc.


Civil Society

Gain passenger understanding through communication
Leverage technologies for direct passenger communications
Text/email/phone, social media (FaceBook, Twitter)

Communicate with media

Stay ahead of the news
Social media, direct text/email, announcements

Government and regulators

Observe regulatory limits
Situational awareness



Quantification and strategic

plan for vulnerabilities based on
probabilities of massive flight
disruptions. Collaboration with
between planning and
Operations Center
Collaborative integration of
Operations Center with other
Real time situational analysis
tools with integration
Top management commitment
to fostering collaboration across
the airline and innovation
Crisis Cells, rapid decision
making, risk taking based on
OR tools



Minimized costs

Passenger understanding
through communication
Communication with media
Operate within 3-Hour
Tarmac Ruler regulatory


Crisis is a Catalyst for Change
Organization development provides tools to implement change
Organization learning provides culture for sustainable change
Airlines Do Not Address
Massive Flight Disruptions as a Crisis
Massive flight disruptions are isolated to a single department
issue, i.e., operations
Risk-adverse: Operations staffing have deep operations
experience, but no experience across airline departments

Answer to research question

The resources required to manage massive flight disruptions are
enormous and not practical to have on stand-by (Russ Chew)
Hence the need for a behavioral management approach
Massive flight disruptions are viewed as an operations problem,
but theyre actually a crisis involving the entire airline
Solution: Collaboration across the airline
Behavioral approach: Crisis management tools integrate with
Organization Development interventions
SOC staff have deep but narrow experience in airline operations and are risk
Solution: Develop a culture fostering innovation, which includes other
airline departments
Behavioral approach: Organization Learning interventions

For a copy of dissertation:

Tulinda Larsen
Tel: +1 443-510-3566
Twitter @TulindaLarsen

Thank you to Tim Antolovic, AA, Jack Keis, Metron Aviation, Tim Jacobs, US,
Stephen G. Smith, US Office of Inspector General, Dr. Darryl Jenkins,
American Aviation Institute, Josh Marks, masFlight, Dr. Carole Lalonde, and
my dissertation advisor, Dr. Michael Evanchik for their invaluable support and
guidance in my research and in developing my framework.

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Airline Operations Government Studies

U. S. Department of Transportation. (2009). DOT consumer rule limits airline tarmac delays, provides other passenger protections, US DOT Press Release, DOT 199-09. December 21,
2009 Retrieved from
U.S. Department of Transportation (2010) Request for comments on carriers temporary exemption requests from DOTs tarmac delay rules for JFK, EWR, LGA and PHL operations, 75
Fed. Reg. 15765 (Docket No. DOTOST20070022)
U.S. Department of Transportation (2011). Consent Order: American Eagle Airlines, Inc. Violations of 14 CFR Part 259and 49 U.S.C. 41712. Docket OST-2011-000.
U.S. Department of Transportation, (2007) Enhancing airline passenger protections, advance notice of proposed rulemaking, US Department of Transportation, 72 Fed. Reg. 65233 (14
CFR Parts 234, 253, 259, and 399, Docket No. DOTOST20070022) RIN No. 2105AD72
U.S. Department of Transportation, (2008) Enhancing airline passenger protections, notice of proposed rulemaking, US Department of Transportation, 72 Fed. Reg. 74586 (14 CFR Parts
234, 253, 259, and 399, Docket No. DOTOST20070022) RIN No. 2105AD72
U.S. Department of Transportation, (2009) Enhancing airline passenger protections: final rule, 74 Fed Reg. 68983(14 CFR Parts 234, 253, 259, and 399, Docket No. DOTOST2007
0022) RIN No. 2105AD72
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2000). Interim report on airline customer service commitment (Report No: AV-2000-102)
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2001). Final report on airline customer service commitment (Report No: AV-2001-020)
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2006). Report on Audit of Small Community Aviation Delays and Cancelations (Report No: CR2006-049)
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2007). Actions needed to minimize long, on-board flight delays (Report No: AV-2007-077)
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2008). Status Report on Actions Underway to Address Flight Delays and Improve Airline Customer
Satisfaction (Report No: CC-2008-058)
U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, Office of the Secretary, (2010). New York Flight Delays Have Three Main Cause, But More Work Is Needed to Understand
Their Nationwide Effect. (Report No: AV-2011-007)
U.S. General Accountability Office (2001). Air Traffic Control: Role of FAAs Modernization Program in Reducing Delays and Congestion (Report No: GAO-01-725T) Retrieved from
U.S. General Accountability Office (2002). National Airspace System: Long-Tem Capacity Planning Needed Despite Recent Reductions in Flight Delays (Report No: GAO-02-185)
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U.S. General Accountability Office (2008). National Airspace System: DOT and FAA Actions Will Likely Have a Limited Effect on Reducing Delays during Summer 2008 Travel Season
(Report No: GAO-08-934T) Retrieved from
U.S. General Accountability Office (2010). National Airspace System setting on-time performance targets at congested airports could help focus FAAs actions (Report No: GAO-10-542)
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U.S. General Accountability Office (2010). Summary of Flight Delay Trends for 34 Airports in the Continental United States, an E-supplement to GAO 10-542 (Report Number: GAO-10543SP) Retrieved from
U.S. General Accountability Office (2011). Airline passenger protections: More data and analysis is needed to understand the effects of flight delays (Report No: GAO-11-733) Retrieved
U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee. (2008). Your Flight Has Been Delayed Again: Flight Delays Cost Passengers, Airlines And The U.S. Economy Billions. Washington, D.C.
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