Flight cancellation tactic pays off
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.
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