Airline Nightmare: Which Flight Will Take Off First?

Once airports reopen, how do airlines decide which flights take off first?

ByABC News
December 27, 2010, 1:26 PM

Dec. 27, 2010— -- Will your flight be the first to leave once airports in the Northeast reopen after this weekend's debilitating blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded at airports? Or will you be stuck behind a long line of flights trying to take to the skies?

When the runways reopen -- an event scheduled for late Monday afternoon -- the hundreds of canceled flights will take off in an order that is part complex formula set by the airlines and part luck of the draw.

It's is a bit of a free for all, but the airlines that have planes at the airport, fueled, de-iced and full of passengers will get the first slots.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles all traffic in and out of the nation's airports but doesn't get to favor one flight over another. It's first come, first serve, explained Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

Pilots will file flight plans as they are ready for departure. The local ground controller then gets a request from the pilot for clearance -- essentially a request to taxi and take off. Takemoto said the request is what earns the flight a spot in the queue. The only reason the FAA would deviate from that order is if planes needed to maneuver around snowbanks, or if there were some other problem on the taxiways.

The hardest hit airports are New York's big three. Flights at LaGuardia resumed around 4 p.m. today, with JFK and Newark Liberty re-opening at 7 p.m., according to the FAA's flight delay website.

Stay Up to Date on the Latest Travel Trends from ABC News on Twitter

The airlines have their own set of rules to determine which flights they board first. The first -- and most important determining factor -- is which aircraft do they have available. They then try to stick to the normal flight schedule as much as possible.

"So, if Philadelphia airport reopens at 8 a.m., we usually resume operations with the closest departure after 8 a.m.," US Airways spokesman Derek Hanna told ABC News.