Airlines' new policy of pre-emptively canceling flights to avoid snowstorms is lowering their losses, but leaving many more passengers stranded.If my travel experience this week is any indication, the airlines are eagerly trading passenger misery for lower losses. And in the process, they're forcing passengers to take on some new and unexpected costs.

On Sunday, my family had been expecting to fly back home to Boston from Milwaukee. But Frontier Airlines, a division of Republic Airway Holdings (RJET), canceled our flight, cheerfully notifying us that we could catch another one five days later.

We decided that spending the next five days in Milwaukee for the mere chance of a flight home wasn't worth the risk. The trains were booked, and a bus was out of the question. So we rented a car and drove from Milwaukee to Toledo, Ohio, on Sunday; from Toledo to Albany, N.Y., on Monday; and finally from Albany to Boston on Tuesday morning.

Welcome to Pre-Canceled Flights

We were hardly alone. We were among thousands of victims who suffered from a new airline policy of canceling flights that might be at risk of being stranded in a snow zone.

As New York Times aviation reporter Matthew Wald told NPR, which we listened to on our long drive home, the airlines have taken up a new strategy called pre-cancellation. "You might call it drop-dead," said Wald. "And the theory is, yeah, New York is OK today, but if we fly in there, it's going to snow overnight. We won't get out again. We just won't go."

Due to pre-cancellation, what happened to us and thousands of others last weekend will happen to many future travelers who head in or out of snow zones.

Moreover, thanks to record load factors (how many seats are filled on flights) of 82%, the cancellations made for more demand than supply. There are 4.6 passengers for every seat, meaning it should take between four and five days to get everyone to their destinations, according to The New York Times.

This policy marks a clear trade-off between airline shareholders and passengers. For example, according to Guardian.uk, the airline industry forecasts that revenues will hit $522 billion in 2010 -- $42 billion below the 2008 peak and $43 billion above the 2009 low. Between 2000 and 2009, the industry lost $50 billion.

However, by spring of this year, estimated airline industry losses fell 50% from $5.6 billion to $2.8 billion, thanks to those rising load factors. And Wednesday, an aviation consultant told Bloomberg that he thought the industry would actually make a $3 billion profit in 2010.

No More Leather Seats

Frontier is a prime example of the change in the industry. The carrier has survived numerous mergers, including one with Midwest Express, which we flew every December for about a decade before it got bought in July 2009.

We saw a marked difference after the merger: Midwest Express was like a corporate jet for the masses, with two leather seats on each side of the aisle, gourmet food served with beautiful utensils and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. Frontier piles passengers into six seats across the aisle and no free food, except for the chocolate-chip cookies.

But Frontier parent Republic actually made a profit in third-quarter 2010. Shareholders got to enjoy the benefits of full planes in parts of the country where the weather was fine.

Meanwhile, our costs for the two-day drive halfway across the country -- including the rental car, hotels and meals -- were 66% higher than they would have been if our flight had actually left as scheduled, before the blizzard pounded Boston.


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ritterjohn

This is a no-brainer. More flights cancel now than ever before because airlines don't want to risk the heavy fines for planes being stranded on the tarmac. Thank the consumers who pushed for that ridiculous law. Everyone is paying the price because airlines have to be more cautious. The penalty is $27,000 per passenger on a stranded plane.....do the math and you can see why flights are canceling and precanceling.

March 12 2011 at 9:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Vito

On Dec 20, my father left Hartford at 2:30 pm to Chicago Ohare. He had a connecting flight from Ohare to South Bend. The connecting flight was cancelled before 2:00 pm and was scheduled to leave at 5:08 pm. They cancelled the flight 4 hours in advance. They scheduled him on a 9:30 pm flight to get to South Bend around 11:45. Fortunatly I know how these bastards work. At 4:00 pm I jumped in my car in South Bend, drove to Ohare and picked him up. When we got home we checked flight status and the 9:30 flight was also cancelled. The 5:08pm flight should never have been cancelled, the weather at the time was good. My guess is that there were not enough passengers scheduled so they combined flights.... The 9:30 flight was absolultly because of the weather. If my father had waited for the 9:30 flight he would have been stranded in the airport for 24 hours. He is 77 years old with medical conditions. I wasn't aobut to let the airlines kill him. I used to fly alot but I have not flown since prior to 9/11/2001. I drive to california, to florida, to maine, and to canada. I will never fly again. Let them stick that in their pipes and smoke it.

December 30 2010 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sal8110

I'm 60 years old, and in my early days, airlines kept flying in the snow. Every year or so, a plane dove into the ground, these delays are costly, both for the airlines and the passingers, but the alternative is a lot worse..........

December 30 2010 at 7:23 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
papaed20

Your right tutu , it's the weather. 75 % of the public it's Whine Whine Whine , GET A LIFE , you can't change the weather. If the planes took off in uncertain weather and something happened they'd still bitch

December 30 2010 at 4:28 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
leblancaj

Weather cancellations are kind of expected at this time of year. If weather conditions are too bad, pilots don't want to fly and if they don't want to fly a smart passenger doesn't want to fly either.

However, this one was made worse by government regulations. Remember the new regulation that came in, saying that airlines would pay high penalties if the passengers were going to be waiting for takeoff for more than a few hours? Rather than trying to get a flight off the ground and risking a long delay, the airlines are cancelling the dubious flights. So more of us will have our flights cancelled. Don't like it? Try getting some of these regulations OFF the books instead of loading more of them on.

December 30 2010 at 1:18 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Happy Face

The trains must run on time. Tne airlines use to, and should again.

December 29 2010 at 11:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
traviscapt2001

I wouldnt fly unless I had too. It seems that things are only gettin worse.

December 29 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
BRYANT

Anyone who flies nowdays if there is any other option is asking for a problem. Don't fly and you will almost certainly get to your destiniatio if it is within 8000 miles, fly and anything can and does happen - the airlines only care about the planes, not the people.

December 29 2010 at 10:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Happy Face

I'm a conservative. But it's time to impose some regulations on these guys. They need to treat their customers with respect, not like cattle.

December 29 2010 at 9:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
XTennis77

I am a 15 times a year flyer. I am impatient. I think the airlines - and their workers - are rude, condescending, feel that they are owed something, and have no love of their jobs. We, as travelers, are a complete pain in their ass!!!! Get a grip and realize you have a relatively easy job with a lot of perks!!! Man up!!!

December 29 2010 at 9:10 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to XTennis77's comment
dadthebull

WOW...people like you are a pain in EVERYONES ass. Im sure you are an ass 24/7.Perks!!!!!! what non rev in a middle seat next to YOU....HA....You try to load 120 bags in 95 degree weather....board 144 pax yourself and answer the same question 144 times because you dont listen to the PA..Sir you get a grip

December 29 2010 at 9:38 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Kate

Dadthebull

I agree with Xtennis. Travelers are treated like an annoyance. You must work for the airlines.

December 30 2010 at 1:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply