How United Airlines is changing its policies for diverted flights

It has not been a strong operational month for United Airlines. 

I'm hearing a bunch of widebody flights have been delayed, and that systemwide, delays are much higher than in other months. I believe we'll eventually see that United's June on-time rate will lag significantly behind rates at American and Delta. Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Flier blog, has a post this week on the problems, and he believes he has pinpointed one cause - a labor dispute between United and its mechanics. Be sure to check out his post.  Some of the delays are likely also attributable to bad weather. 

I bring up operational issues not to copy Brett, but to highlight a newish approach United is taking in handling diverted flights. Whenever possible, United told employees it is going to mix up where it sends diverted domestic flights when important airports, such as Denver and Houston, cannot handle arrivals due to bad weather.

In the past, United would send as many diversions as possible to obvious airports, like Colorado Springs for Denver and Austin for Houston. But United employees at those airports can't necessarily handle all the extra workload, so the carrier is going has started sending diversions to more airports under a plan it implemented in June. It believes this new approach - called a "scatter plan" - will help make diversions more efficient. 

"When we activate the scatter plan, we redirect flights to airports that will allow for the most efficient recovery for the system as a whole, not necessarily to the closest airport," United told employees recently. "Each flight that goes to the pre-identified diversion station better positions us to reduce the overall risk of long tarmac delays, customer connection issues and crew availability concerns that could lead to more canceled flights."

United is asking pilots to buy into the change. 

"This plan increases situational awareness in the cockpit," a manger working on the program told United's employee newsletter. "It might seem to make sense to divert somewhere for your individual flight, but this is about the bigger picture of the entire system and what best positions us for recovery."

United has previously implemented a similar program for trans-Atlantic diversions that cannot land at Washington Dulles or Newark. 

Here's a before-and-after graphic of Houston diversions. You'll notice Austin is a lot less important now.