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Is there a more advantageous time of day to fly if you want to avoid cancellations or delays due to summer thunderstorms?
Summer is here – and with it comes afternoon thunderstorms. Heating during the day combined with moist air creates the cycle for cumulus clouds, some of which grow into thunderstorms.
These can disrupt flights because flying through or landing in thunderstorms can be hazardous. The high winds, turbulence and potential microbursts within thunderstorms make them something that pilots avoid.
Many airlines use a hub-and-spoke operation, where large numbers of flights arrive into a city, swap passengers and cargo, then depart. The effect of thunderstorms in these spots can severely disrupt an airline’s operation.
Cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, North Carolina; New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Amsterdam and London serve as large international hubs, connecting travelers to their domestic final destinations. So when the thunderstorms arrive over a hub city, the effects are felt for hours or days.
What happens if a hub is shut down?
Loss of a hub causes airlines to shift to their “irregular ops” plan. Their dispatch offices work to get planes and passengers back to the normal schedule as quickly as possible, but there are multiple hurdles to clear.
Flight crew duty time, aircraft maintenance schedules and available reserve crews are just a few of the considerations. Dispatch teams also have to think about rebooking passengers and cargo – and keeping perishable cargo safe.
Storms cause a domino effect
Once a storm rolls in, so do calls from passengers attempting to reconstruct travel plans skyrockets, overwhelming the available customer service agents.
The professionals in the operations center know that every passenger wants to get to their destination as close to their original plan as possible. And with most flights finally full again, it is difficult to find open seats and extra flight crews.
► 'Current hold time is eight hours and 31 minutes': Travelers face frustrating waits to reach airlines
One of the most difficult things to understand is when the weather is fine at your departure airport and your destination, but your airplane is impacted by the weather at a far-away hub. It is frustrating, as is the wait for rebooking caused by the customer service agents being overwhelmed with hundreds of demands.
Remember, airline workers cannot change the weather. So try to be a little more patient with the staff members who are working hard to get you to your destination, as well as the flight attendants. Remember, their plans got disrupted by the weather, as well.
It also helps to be appreciative of the pilots, who make the decision to divert rather than fly into or attempt to land at an airport deluged by thunderstorms. They may be inconveniencing you, but they're also keeping you safe.
Book your flight times strategically
While you can't control the weather, you can reduce the odds of storms fouling up your flight plans. Whenever possible, book morning or early afternoon flights. This will help minimize the impact of storms on your flight and reduce the risk of missing your connecting flight. By getting on earlier flights, you can complete your travel before late-in-the-day weather creates a domino effect of cancellations and delays.
► Ask the Captain: What exactly is turbulence?
► Ask the Captain: How do pilots avoid thunderstorms while flying at night?
What to do if your flight is canceled due to weather
Call your airline as early as possible. And since there will be a large number of passengers with similar needs, the wait to talk to an agent or receive a callback could be substantial. If you can, get into the queue to talk to an agent in person, but consider other available avenues, including the airline's website and social media. Experienced travelers know that using multiple approaches improves the probability of success.
Major US airlines and the cities where they have hubs and other big operations
Portland, Oregon (PDX)
Charlotte, North Carolina
New York - JFK
New York - LaGuardia
Washington - Reagan National
Delta Air Lines
New York - JFK
New York - LaGuardia
Salt Lake City
Phoenix - Sky Harbor
Chicago - O'Hare
Houston - Bush Intercontinental Airport
Newark, New Jersey
Washington - Dulles
John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer travel: How to keep thunderstorms from messing up your plans