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Posted at 9:15 AM ET, 02/11/2011

Flight cancellation tactic pays off

By Samantha Bomkamp, Associated Press

Airlines' strategy to cancel flights early and often ahead of bad weather paid off in December, when not a single U.S. flight was stuck for more than three hours because of a massive post-Christmas blizzard.

Only three flights, operated by Delta, United and Pinnacle, were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours that month, but none of them were held up by the storm. The tally didn't include some international flights that were delayed for more than three hours -- including flights operated by Cathay Pacific and British Airways that spent over seven hours on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport.

It also doesn't include more than 300 flights that waited for two hours on the tarmac. Still, that's less than the 371 flights that waited on the tarmac between two and three hours last December.

U.S. airlines face fines of $27,000 per passengers for tarmac delays of more than three hours. International airlines are not subject to rule, even if they land or takeoff from U.S. airports. The Transportation Department is considering expanding the rule to include them. Since the rule was implemented in April, 15 planes have gone past the three-hour mark, but none has been fined. There were 584 flights delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours in the same period a year earlier.

The December blizzard shut Northeast airports and led to nearly 10,000 cancellations by the 18 biggest U.S. airlines. There were almost 20,000 cancellations overall in December. By cancelling flights well ahead of bad weather, airlines are better able to keep planes moving through the rest of their networks.

Cancellations don't cost airlines as much as some might think. Canceling a flight eliminates fuel and labor costs. Many passengers will fly, just on later flights, so the airline still collects its fare.

Widespread cancellations in December helped ease the burden on other airport traffic. U.S. airlines operated 72 percent of their flights on time in December, the same as the year before. Airline on-time rates fell from the month before, though. In November, 83.2 percent of flights were on time.

Southwest Airlines, the Washington area's largest domestic carrier, had an on-time rate of 67.1 percent. Southwest had one of the best records for getting passengers to their destinations on time, because they avoid crowded big-city airports, favoring secondary airports with less traffic. Last year the airline moved into busy airports like New York's LaGuardia and Boston's Logan, where it's trying to attract more business travelers.

Southwest also had the only flight -- on its Baltimore-to-New York route -- that was labeled "chronically delayed" for three straight months.

JetBlue, which canceled 1,400 flights in a span of five days before, during and after the blizzard, operated the fewest on-time flights last month. Only about 58.6 percent of its planes were on time. Three regional airlines that operate flights for major airlines -- Comair, SkyWest and Pinnacle -- also operated fewer than two-thirds of their flights on-time.

The government also said the airlines bumped fewer passengers from overbooked flights in the last quarter of 2009.

Have you had a flight canceled due to the recent winter storms or been stuck on the tarmac for an hour or two? Share your story by posting a comment below.

By Samantha Bomkamp, Associated Press  | February 11, 2011; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Airlines, Airports, Aviation  
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That may have been a win of some sorts, but Delta over-reacted by quite a bit in the Christmas storm.

DC wasn't forecasted to get snow before noon, yet our 8 am flight to MSP was cancelled over 12 hours before. Made more frustrating by the subsequent non-event where our flight could have left the airport without any issue whatsoever. Apparently, many similar tales were told in Atlanta at the time - no snow, but tons of people without flights.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | February 11, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Why haven't the airlines been fined as specified by law? What are we waiting for, more abuses by the airline industry? I wish that the airlines would charge more if they have to to survive and deliver better service...or just go ahead and fold.

Posted by: 10bestfan | February 11, 2011 12:46 PM | Report abuse

No flights waited for more than 3 hours on the tarmac*.

*well, not really....

I love how there are so many exceptions for things like non weather delays, international flights by non-US airlines. But I guess a big reduction in delays is a good thing, even if it as not as good as they make it out to be.


One thing they didn't really seem to cover here was the severe difficulty people had in re-booking flights after the Christmas storm. A relative of mine flew into NYC from the west coast, and was scheduled to fly out on Dec 27. The earliest they could accomodate him was Jan 2. And he's an elite status frequent flyer on the airline in question! You'd think that after canceling so many flights, they would have made some of those flights up in subsequent days (i.e., the Dec 27th 8AM flight to Chicago is now leaving at 4PM on Dec 29). And also that they would have given people who were stuck priority over those people who were first starting trips (i.e. bump the people who are leaving to go on vacation to make space for those trying to get home). It seemed like in the days after the storm, people who had flights that were not cancelled just by pure luck went about their merry way and if there happened to be 1 or 2 extra seats on those flights, people who were stranded had to fight for them. If you managed to re-book a flight and then it got cancelled, rather than be accomodated on the next available flight, you went to the back of the line for re-booking.

Some of these practices really don't seem fair. The people who are delayed the most should receive priority.

Posted by: thetan | February 11, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"The people who are delayed the most should receive priority."

But you're just pushing the burden to a much larger group with this. It's more efficient to rebook/reroute passengers from canceled flight(s) when and where there's space available rather than put them all on the next flight, damn those already booked. Putting them all on the next flight just creates a snowball effect.

Unfortunately, what happened in NYC was the perfect storm (pun not intended) of a MASSIVE weather event hitting very heavily used airports in the middle of the busiest travel time of the year. It was quite the extreme case.

Posted by: Mainland | February 11, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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