Winter Storm Flying Lessons: Sourcing and Procurement Takeaways

While I scoff at the tag “road warrior,” I do spend quite a bit of time in airports these days. On a monthly basis, I’m actually taking more trips than I can recall throughout my career, but the duration is often short – same-day travel or quick overnights. Yet while good for getting home and seeing the kids, frequent short trips put you at the whim of the airline and weather gods more than periodic or weekly on-site things with clients.

But you can fight back. Living in Chicago, especially in the winter, I’ve learned to some strategies for getting home, even when inclement weather strikes. For example, Winter Storm Saturn showed its wrath just as I was supposed to fly home from NYC earlier this week.

The ultimate results of my itinerary – getting home on-time compared to some other colleagues who weren’t so lucky – illustrates the value of the strategy I’m about to share. But credit should be given where credit is due, and in this case, I need to raise a virtual glass to my colleague Pierre Mitchell for suggesting I write a quick essay on the topic of personal travel sourcing strategy.

Upon hearing my story, this is what Pierre came back with as a summary:

“Have a playbook. Have robust strategy. Trade off the cost (of the option) vs. option value trade-off. Your strategy has a cost in terms of your time doing it and the higher cost for flexible tickets. However, you got home and the other 67% of the herd did not.”

So what did I do, you ask? I invested about an extra hour of my time and paid slightly more for tickets that would provide options in case the supposed 10 inches of snow in Chicago hit.

First, I bought an initial flexible fare ticket a week in advance. The next step was to create options for return travel during what was forecasted to be (and ultimately ended up becoming) the heart of the storm.

Before the flight out to NYC at O’Hare, I chatted up an affable gate agent and told her my plight: “I need to get home tomorrow night for a business dinner. I’m currently holding a ticket out of Newark. If I wanted to buy another one (or two) what would you do in my shoes to maximize the chance of getting back on-time during the storm?”

Her first piece of advice was to avoid regional jets at all cost. She told me United always cancels first during storms where runway capacity could be an issue. She then weighed the options of buying another ticket out of Newark versus another NYC airport and ultimately said even though Newark was a hub and “hub to hub” flights are often given priority, that as long as I was on a “real jet,” I might be better served trying another airport as a hedge.

Based on this advice, I booked another ticket at the same time out of La Guardia (also on United) and another, to play it extra safe, out of Newark on Southwest, flying into Midway, and not O’Hare.

The strategy paid off. As the storm blew in that morning morning, the Southwest flight cancelled (Southwest is quicker to cancel flights at Midway in inclement weather after one of their 737s skidded off the runway and killed a child a few years ago during a snow storm). My Southwest flexible ticket was simply cancelled and refunded after a few minutes on hold with the call center, as the Southwest web site gave an error message when trying to refund the amount versus changing flights online.

Around the same time, I saw that all of the regional jets had predictably cancelled into O’Hare as well. But both the reservations I had originally were still, surprisingly, on-time. I ended up choosing to head to La Guardia over Newark because it was a slightly earlier flight, and I cancelled the other ticket en route to the airport. Much as the gate agent predicted, the other non-regional jet flights, especially out of Newark, were getting into O’Hare during the height of the storm (and despite my local paper, The Chicago Tribune, headlining on its website that “1,000 flights cancelled” due to the storm).

In the end, the flight actually landed early, despite significant snowfall at the time of landing. After landing, the pilot told me they cancelled so many flights that there was no delay, and we landed after the runway was cleared a minute before (walking up the jet way, he told me they were seconds away from having to “pull up” and go around because of a snowplow on the runway).

Once again, my multiple ticket strategy had paid off. Unfortunately, my colleagues that I had planned to meet for dinner weren't so lucky … they were on one of the cancelled flights into O’Hare out of Boston.

Just as Pierre had remarked when I told him the story, there are valuable sourcing and category management lessons in here:

  • Have a playbook
  • Do your homework and consult market intelligence experts (in this case, a seasoned gate agent)
  • Have a robust strategy and adapt it as conditions change
  • Trade off the cost (of the option) vs. the option value trade-off
  • Remember your strategy has a cost in terms of your time doing it and the higher cost for flexibility – but weigh both

Of course one might also need to convince their corporate travel department to get creative in such situations. But when material dollars or personal utility are riding on negotiating a contract in-person, making a client dinner meeting or simply getting home to tuck in the kids during a snowstorm, the extra few bucks spent on flexible tickets and the time spent monitoring the situation can more than pay off!

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