Airlines take extraordinary measures to protect airport workers in extreme cold

SHARE Airlines take extraordinary measures to protect airport workers in extreme cold

Workers deice a Southwest Airline’s aircraft at Midway Airport on January 22, 2019. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Southwest Airlines is doling out industrial-grade coats, gloves and face masks and canceling curbside check-in at Chicago’s Midway International Airport.

Across town at O’Hare International Airport, American Airlines set up a mini command center Tuesday and on Wednesday will deliver hand warmers and extra gloves, hot chocolate, coffee and tea to baggage handlers and other outside workers from a mobile warming van.

United is adding temporary heated shelters and bringing ramp workers to Chicago from other cities to rotate into the schedule so employees spend less time outside.

And all of the airlines, in a move set to significantly snarl travel to, from and through the Midwest for the third consecutive day, are canceling flights in droves to reduce exposure to the extreme cold for planes and people.

Airlines with hubs in Chicago and other Midwest cities are no weather wimps, with brutal winters the norm. But the polar vortex and historic subzero temperatures forecast for Wednesday – Chicago is going to be colder than Antarctica this week – call for extraordinary measures.

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“Airplanes themselves operate at these temperatures all the time up at 30,000 feet,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Scott. “But when you get them on the ground there are just things that pop up, like frozen water lines and cargo doors freezing shut.”

In addition to equipment issues, there are staffing concerns, Scott said. Workers can’t be outside as long as usual and some might not even make it to work due to car trouble or school closings.

“We’re trying to plan for what we know and what we’ve experienced in the past, but there’s a little bit of unknown here,” Scott said.

This much is known: Airlines have proactively canceled more than 1,400 Wednesday flights according to flight tracker FlightAware, and the vast majority are to and from airports experiencing the deep freeze.

Chicago, once again, is taking the biggest hit, with more than 1,500 flights to and from its two major airports canceled as of Wednesday morning.

At O’Hare, home to hubs for American and United, more than 1,100 departures and arrivals were canceled as of Wednesday morning EST. Late Tuesday, United proactively canceled 80 percent of its schedule at O’Hare, or about 500 flights, according to spokesman Robert Einhorn.

At Midway, where Southwest reigns, 332 departures and arrivals have been canceled.

Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish said the extreme cold temperatures and wind chill factor limit the amount of time employees can spend outside.

“Because of these physical limitations, arrival and departure operations are reduced to help us meet the challenges presented by Winter Storm Jayden as we continually keep the safety of our employees and customers our top priority,” he said.

The airline also will provide hot beverages and food to employees, he said.

Other airports in the Midwest showing significant cancellations for Wednesday, according to FlightAware: St. Louis Lambert International, with over 124 flights to and from the airport canceled, and Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport with nearly 90 canceled flights.

Southwest canceled the most flights at both airports.

Delta, which has major hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit, said it hasn’t canceled any flights due to the extreme cold.

“We operate at two of the coldest weather hubs in the U.S, so our team is familiar with these temps and prepared,” spokeswoman Ashley Black said. “We do remind employees when working in extreme temperatures to dress in layers and stay hydrated.”

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