Weather: How the Troubled Response to the Blizzard Is Just the Beginning for a Warmer World

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Alastair Grant/AP

Yesterday afternoon, as we were closing this week’s issue of Time, I ended up in a debate with one of my editors over how the air travel system had responded to a December of terrible weather. I’d written a short piece coming out in the magazine describing the travel Armageddon the storm had created for airline passengers—not just in New York, where all three airports were closed for a time, but well beyond, as the ripples from the storm extended around the world. I argued that the thousands of flights canceled by the storm—and especially the difficulty the airlines experienced trying to rebook passengers—was at least partially a consequence of an overburdened air travel system, one that lacked the flexibility to deal with an extreme event. As Nate Silver noted yesterday, the average load for a domestic flight through the first 9 months of the year was 82%, the highest figure since the Department of Transportation began tracking. (Silver writes that a decade ago, the figure was closer to 70%.) That change is partially due to airlines choosing to cut back on flights and raise profit margins (every empty seat is a waste), but that leaves far less excess capacity to absorb those tens of thousands of bumped passengers. As a result, customers have been left waiting days for rebooked flights, with many still sleeping on the terminal floor of airports like New York’s JFK. And that’s not even including the airlines’ utterly overwhelmed customer-service lines—read Tom Scocca’s post on the airlines’ useless robo-phones over at Slate.


Sounds like a disaster to me. But my editor at Time, Michael Elliott, disagrees. To him, the sheer number of canceled flights—and the number of angry passengers stranded in terminals up and down the East Coast—was more accurate reflection of just how common air travel had become, and with it, our expectations for our easy movement should be. On one level, after all, the global air travel system really is a technological marvel—with a few clicks, you can book yourself a ticket that can take you halfway around the planet in a day. (OK, maybe not right now, but usually.) What was once extraordinary had now become another form of commuting, and we think it our due to be able to fly thousands of miles to visit family for the holidays and fly back home in time for work. To Elliott, the airlines have actually weathered the weather relatively well, and just about everyone will eventually get to where they need to be, if not when they need to be—and if anyone’s at fault (besides global warming), it’s the airports for being unable to cope to clear their runways fast enough.

The debate ended eventually, because that’s what happens when you argue with your boss. But was Elliott right? Certainly global air travel has grown to incredibly from its birth in the 1940s and 50s, when flying was the domain of the well off of the West and just a few airlines prowled the sky. In 2009 nearly 5 billion trips were taken on airplanes around the world—and that was down from 2008, thanks to the global economic slowdown. It won’t drop for long—the International Air Transport Association expects passenger demand to grow by more than 5% next year, with exploding Asia leading the charge. As passengers we have choices that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago, let alone 50—booking and changing our ticket online, checking flight status via an iPhone app, traveling on budget airlines. As maddening and crowded as the current air travel experience is on a normal day—let alone in the aftermath of a blizzard—all those who long for the supposed golden age of air travel should probably remember that most of us wouldn’t have been able to afford to fly back then, and our choices of times and destinations would have been much more limited. (Frank Rich’s piece from December 26 on “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?“, about a middle-class family who filmed their trip to the Happiest Place on Earth in 1956, underscores just how unusual air travel was for even the middle class back then.)

Despite those advances, we keep complaining—just as people here in New York have been complaining about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failure to clear the streets after the city’s sixth-worst blizzard. (The “thundersnow” was pretty impressive, but the most amazing thing about this storm is that it actually made the mega-rich mayor apologize for something.) But how much is our dissatisfaction amplified by digital technologies? There was no Twitter during the great storms of the past, no way for passengers stuck in a terminal to send an endless stream of tweets about their epic plight. There was no Facebook where you could post photos of your street, still unplowed two days after the snow stopped falling. Perspective can get lost—let’s not forget, this was a major, major storm, and it shouldn’t be surprising that when lots of snow falls, travel is going to get gummed up—and then some. Yet it’s as if we expect the real world—the stuff of atoms, shovels and municipal plow trucks—to move as undaunted as our digital communications. There are no snow days on the Internet. To spin off a rant by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell—who complained when the NFL decided to postpone Sunday night’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles because of the snow—it’s as if we’ve become a “nation of wussies,” unable to deal with obstacles, turning a delayed cross-country flight into something out of the Odyssey.

That’s not to say that as officials investigate the response of cities like New York to the blizzard, they won’t find mistakes—often with tragic outcomes, like the medical emergencies that went unattended during the storm because ambulances were trapped by unplowed streets and stuck cars. Airlines could try to increase capacity, to allow more wiggle room during the next big disruption, or at the very least hire a few more service reps so customer calls can actually get answered. But guess what? That would cost more. New York City—suffering from budget woes like just about every other major metropolitan area in the U.S.—could have upped the amount of money it spends on snow plows and overtime, but would that money might come from schools, or the police force or firefighters? Ditto air travel—it would cost extra to have excess capacity on hand for travel disruptions, but it’s hard to imagine that cost wouldn’t get handed down to consumers. Still, we complain. Maybe we’re not a nation of wussies—maybe we’re a nation of freeloaders, a country that wants tax cuts but great national service at the same time, cheap gasoline but oil-free shores. Innovation can help you get more for your dollar, from IT to government services, but eventually, you get what you pay for.

And the really bad news—thanks in part to climate change, it’s only going to get worse. As Alexis Madrigal writes over at the Atlantic, as weather gets weirder in the years to come, cities (and airlines and nations and militaries) will likely find it even more difficult to keep up:

While I’m sure weather emergencies can be handled better or worse, if the weather is crazy enough, the government-quality signal gets drowned out by the weather signal. Cities were built with certain tolerance levels in mind, certain climactic baselines, and if you go outside of them, everyone looks terrible because they’re pulling levers of power and control that are not commensurate with the task they need to fix.

Climate change won’t be the only factor amplifying the impact that natural disasters will have on cities in the years to come. Simple population and economic growth will put more people and more money in harm’s way, but climate change could well make those storms or heat waves or floods that much stronger. We’ll need to cut carbon, but even more so, we’ll need to adapt—city by city—and as Madrigal notes, that won’t be cheap:

What you need to know is that your city — pretty much wherever it is — was built for a climate that it may no longer have. That’s going to mean tough commutes during the winter and spending more money on air conditioning in the summer. It’s going to mean that your city shuts down more often because some freaky thing happened that no one can remember happening in their lifetimes. It’s going to mean the power’s going to go out because the electric system in your area wasn’t designed to handle the stresses it will be put under. Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine.

We’re entering the Age of Adaptation, and it’s going to take a lot more than a mayor snow shoveling via Twitter. The first thing to adapt, however, should be our attitude.