Winter storm's airport impact: 13,000 canceled flights

As many fliers are discovering, airlines these days are canceling their flights well before a winter storm hits.

By , Staff writer

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    A lone passenger heads to his gate after checking in at Southwest's ticket counter at Midway International Airport, Tuesday, Feb. 1, in Chicago. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the giant storm that resulted in blizzard conditions from Oklahoma to Massachusetts caused another massive round of canceled flights.
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As many passengers have discovered, this has been the winter of the canceled flight.

Snowstorm after snowstorm has wreaked havoc with flight schedules, shutting down airports in all but the balmiest of places. Even Dallas and Atlanta, airports that normally don’t have snow issues, have had to shut down.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the giant storm that resulted in blizzard conditions from Oklahoma to Massachusetts caused another massive round of canceled flights.

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“I don’t know if this is the worst winter, but it certainly has not been good,” says Kenneth Button, an authority on air travel and a public-policy professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

As a result of the latest winter storm, at least 13,000 flights have been canceled, according to some press reports. Delta Air Lines, which operates many flights out of the New York area, canceled 2,626 over two days. JetBlue, a New York-based carrier, canceled almost 800 flights over three days. Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports, accustomed to bad weather, had more than 2,000 flights canceled.

As many fliers are discovering, airlines these days are canceling their flights well before a snowstorm hits. On its website, Delta, like other airlines, says it “will proactively reduce flight schedules to minimize delays.”

While that may sound counterintuitive, Mr. Button says it makes sense. “By canceling the flight early, they can have the crews and planes in place so they can recover more rapidly,” he explains. “If a plane and crew are out of place, it can have a severe knock-over affect.”

JetBlue, for example, kept more of its planes in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., so it could move them back to New York once the airports reopened. It expects flights to be back in operation by Wednesday afternoon, says Sharon Jones, a spokeswoman for the airline.

Also, by canceling flights early, officials do not have to cope with thousands of stranded passengers sitting around the airport with no place to go. To notify passengers of cancellations, airlines are now sending e-mails and tweets.

Because of the storm, most airlines are allowing passengers to rebook flights without penalty fees.

A change in US regulations, which requires airlines to provide monetary remuneration for flights delayed on the tarmac, has also encouraged airlines to cancel flights early, Button says. “They are not allowed to hold flights on the ground for long periods of time, so there are limits on the airlines’ flexibility,” he says.

The latest snow event took place during a time of year when flights aren’t fully booked, says Button, so many fliers will be able to rebook for later flights.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible for Bill Palmer, a Boston-based marketing executive. He had planned to travel on Southwest Airlines to Dallas on Tuesday for his company’s Super Bowl events. Southwest scrubbed the flight.

Although he managed to rebook for Wednesday, that flight was canceled as well. With so many cancellations, the earliest flight he could find was one on Friday at a much higher price. Mr. Palmer ended up canceling the trip.

“I had every airline up on the computer, but nothing worked,” he says. “The toughest part is rebooking.”

The media relations department for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines did not return phone calls.

The delays have kept travel agents more than busy. One of those agents is Victor Abraham, CEO of Skypass Travel in Dallas.

He was working with a group that was arriving from India and on its way to Huntsville, Texas. Their route took them through Dallas. After the Dallas airport was shut down, Mr. Abraham was able to route them through Houston.

“We are just trying to take this one day at a time,” he says of the flying chaos. “I hope we come out of this soon.”

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