Thousands of fliers along the East Coast bunkered down today and waited as airlines canceled nearly 2,000 more flights and planned for more cancellations tomorrow due to a strong winter snowstorm -- called a "weather bomb" -- moving its way up the Atlantic.
Atlanta remained the epicenter of the disruptions this week after a nasty snow and ice storm, but airlines with major operations in New York's three airports are now preparing for the worst. Parts of North Carolina got up to 15 inches of snow, and New York is forecast to get 8 to 14 inches of snow with winds up to 25 mph.
Airlines in New York are worried about tomorrow's flights thanks to the "weather bomb" -- a fast moving, severe winter storm in which air pressure drops quickly and an unusually far south jet stream brings in moisture causing heavy snows and winds. In anticipation of the storm, which is forecast to hit late tonight, airlines are preemptively canceling New York flights.
Nearly a day in advance US Airways canceled flight 2122 from New York LaGuardia to Boston. In fact, by 11 a.m. today, the airlines canceled more than 245 flights for tomorrow, including 47 out of LaGuardia, 33 out of Boston's Logan and 27 out of New York's JFK, according to FlightAware, which tracks cancellations by airline and airport.
There were 2,498 flights were canceled Monday and another 1,954 were canceled by 11:30 a.m. Tuesday with 245 additional departures preemptively canceled for Wednesday, according to FlightAware. Tuesday and Wednesday cancellation numbers climbed throughout the morning.
Early cancellations help travelers know in advance if they should bother showing up at the airport and allow the airlines to have planes and crews in position for when airports reopen. However, some say that the airlines are aggressively canceling flights in order to avoid heavy government penalties for keeping a plane on a tarmac more than three hours.
On April 29, the new Department of Transportation rule went into effect, limiting how long domestic passengers could sit on a plane waiting for takeoff. Airlines can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if they don't bring jets back to the terminal after tarmac delays of three hours or more. Those fines could add up to millions of dollars for just one flight.
"There's no question that airlines are trying to avoid penalties by canceling flights ahead of storms," said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com. "The number of flights held on the tarmac more than three hours has magically plummeted since the rule came into effect, and preemptive cancellations are one, but not the only, reason why. I think it makes sense both for the airlines and their passengers to avoid fighting nature."
Take Delta flight 2594, a 4:02 p.m. departure from Atlanta to Philadelphia. Delta canceled the flight early this morning. The Boeing 757-200 used on that route seats 186 passengers in first class and coach. If that flight tried to depart and was stuck waiting on the tarmac too long, Delta could have faced up to $5.1 million in fines, just for that one flight.
Analysts say it is simply safer for the airlines to cancel rather than take that chance.