Canceled! Airlines scrap record number of flights

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm •  Published: February 14, 2014
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"It's extremely exhausting. I feel like a walking zombie," said Colleen Hoover, 52, who arrived at Miami International Airport at 9 a.m. Wednesday. She was originally scheduled to fly from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to Philadelphia, but her flight was re-routed to Puerto Rico and eventually Miami.

She said she slept at the airport hoping to catch another flight back home. "I'm running on empty, or adrenaline."

Airlines are quicker to cancel flights these days, sometimes a day in advance of a storm. It's rarer to see planes parked at the edge of runways for hours, hoping for a break in the weather, or passengers sleeping on airport cots and cobbling together meals from vending machines. The shift in strategy came in response to new government regulations, improvements to overall operations and because canceling quickly reduces expenses.

In May 2010, a new DOT rule took effect prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more. So, airlines now choose to cancel blocks of flights to avoid potential fines of up to $27,500 per passenger or $4.1 million for a typical plane holding 150 fliers.

Additionally, the government implemented a new rule at the start of January, increasing the amount of rest pilots need. That's made it harder to operate an irregular schedule, such as those seen after a storm. In order to have enough well-rested pilots, airlines cancel more flights.

"This is another behavior being forced upon them by government regulations," says Andrew Davis, an airline analyst at T. Rowe Price.

Not all of the cancelations are tied to regulations. Airlines have learned in recent years that while a large number of early cancelations might cause short-term pain, it helps them better reset after the weather clears.

Reservation systems now automatically rebook passengers on new flights — though not always the flight they want — and send a notification by email, phone or text message.

Keeping planes at airports outside of the storm's path can protect equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen. It also allows airlines to let gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews stay home, too — keeping them fresh once they're needed again.

There are also financial considerations. A plane circling above an airport hoping to land, or even one waiting on a taxiway, burns a lot of fuel. A decade ago, when jet fuel was $1.15 a gallon, that might not have been a major concern. Today, airlines are paying $3.03 a gallon and fuel has become their largest single cost, eclipsing salaries.

Flying during a winter storm also requires deicing, a process that takes time and costs the airlines money.

The airlines do lose money by canceling flights when travelers like Cummings demand refunds. United recently said that early January storms cost it $80 million in lost revenue.

But the sting isn't as bad as you might think.

Jim Corridore, an airline analyst with S&P Capital IQ, notes that United also saved millions in fuel and salaries by not having to fly the canceled flights. And some level of storm-related expenses is already built into airline budgets.

"We're not going to have this type of winter, every winter," Corridore says.

Hopefully not.

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Reporters Suzette Laboy in Miami and Ray Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott .

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