It's been a grueling winter, so far, for many Americans, as the "Lower 48" gets more than its fair share of snow and storms. But many air travelers will tell you this winter season has been especially hard. Flight delays are occurring in places not usually associated with snow-related traffic snafus such as Orange County, Calif. and West Palm Beach, Fla. And even when the skies are clear, a growing number of airlines are apparently preemptively canceling flights ahead of any possible heavy weather.

Earlier this month, according to the Air Transport Association, worries over dire weather forecasts (some of which never resulted in serious storms) caused airlines such as Delta (DAL), Continental (CAL), American (AMR) and Southwest (LUV) to cancel 13,000 flights serving nearly 1 million passengers between Feb. 5 and 10.

Even so, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' latest Air Travel Consumer Report, canceled flights are responsible for only a small percentage of overall flight delays. Even at Chicago's O'Hare, infamous for its winter storm delays, canceled flights (defined by the bureau as a flight listed on a carrier's reservation system that didn't operate within seven days of its scheduled departure) made up less than 3% of flight delays between December 2008 and December 2009. In fact, among the overall causes of flight delays, "extreme weather" comes in a distant third to delays caused by late-arriving aircraft (whose delays, in turn, can be weather-related) and by air carrier delays.

Winter Storms Create Ripple Effect

Experts say the recent winter storms create a nearly unavoidable ripple effect on flights across the U.S. "We've had some particularly bad weather on the East Coast," says Robert Mann, a New York-based airline industry analyst and former airline executive. "And the East Coast cities tend to be what are termed 'pacing cities' -- which is to say, delays that either occur among arrivals or departures here tend to disproportionately effect flight operations elsewhere in the country."

Some major U.S. airports, through a combination of reasonable weather and forward planning, have been spared the headline-making cancellation traumas brought on by the blizzards. Chuck Cannon, spokesman for Denver International Airport, says it's "pretty much the luck of the draw" that his facility has not had to deal with any major, traffic-stopping weather so far this winter. But he notes that DIA learned its lesson after being paralyzed by a major snowstorm in December of 2006.

Now, he says, "instead of trying to keep four or five runways open, we may decide to just keep two open -- so we can throw more resources at the runways and keep planes moving -- although not as many and not as quickly as you would during a nice sunny day, but at least you're keeping air traffic moving."

Airlines Face Another Hazard

Winter will end, eventually. But another hazard looming on the horizon for the airline industry is the so-called Passengers' Bill of Rights, authorized by the federal government last year and expected to take effect in April. The new rules could fine airlines about $27,000 per passenger per flight for any flight stuck out on an airport runway, three hours or more. Easier just to preempt any weather worries and cancel flights instead. The policy comes after several well-publicized stories over the past decade -- horror stories about planes full of passengers stranded for hours on end on airport tarmacs, with nowhere to go.

Robert Mann believes the Passengers' Bill of Rights is going to have a broad spectrum of unintended consequences including widespread preemptive flight cancellations by the airlines whenever there's the possibility of relatively long flight delays due to weather or other circumstances.

"I don't believe there's an airline tariff in the world...that is $27,000 per passenger," he said. "You can charter a jet for that. And if the cost of the average, $220 domestic ticket -- which is pretty much the average cost of a domestic ticket -- is going to be $27,000, then [the airlines are] not going to get up in the morning and do anything other than cancel."

Mann also points to higher "load factors" -- the percentage of seats occupied on any given flights -- as playing a role in the rising number of flight cancellations. The airlines, he says, have gone from load factors in the 60s just a decade ago to flights that now have more than 80% of their seats filled.

When delays or cancellations occur," he says, "the industry practice is, to use their word, 're-accommodate' customers onto alternate flights. If those flights are operating with one-third of their seats empty, then it's not a terribly difficult problem to get an individual flight's passengers re-accommodated onto other flights. However, as the load factor goes up, what you find is there simply aren't the seats available on replacement flights to accommodate customers."

While this has been a bad winter for air travel, data shows that more flights are hampered by weather conditions during the peak summer travel season. "We have more delays in the summertime because of thunderstorms than we ever do in the wintertime, because of snow," says DIA's Chuck Cannon. "Thunderstorms are a lot more dangerous."

For passenger stuck waiting in snowbound terminals, that's not much solace.

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