Jan. 11, 2011 -- 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.
'Weather Bomb' Leads to Canceled Flights
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.
Just today, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics announced that in November -- the most recent month available -- there were no tarmac wait times more than three hours. It was the second month in a row that the nation's largest airlines reported no flights with tarmac delays of more than three hours.
"Flights that otherwise would not have been cancelled are being cancelled as a result of the new rule so as not to risk a costly fine," said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, the airlines' trade and lobbying group. "The most significant reason for the cancellations, however, is the need to position and reposition aircraft as a result of the winter weather -- logistics necessary to keep the other parts of the system running smoothly."
Airlines Cancel Hundreds of Flights
"I don't ever remember airlines canceling so many flights so far in advance due to snow storms," added John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "The good news is passengers are getting offered waivers far in advance so they can change their flights for a better weather delay and not have to deal with the hassles."
The stiff penalties seem to be working. The airlines are generally complying with the three-hour rule and there isn't a major push to rescind it.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics says there have been only 12 total tarmac delays of more than three hours from May through November, compared to 550 during the same seven-month period the prior year.
But that also means the airlines are more likely to cancel flights.
The largest carriers canceled 0.7 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in November, up from the 0.5 percent cancellation rate of November 2009, according to the government.
Robert Mann, an airline consultant and president of R.W. Mann & Company, said that another reason for the cancellations is cost savings.
On more than half of the domestic flights operated by regional partner airlines -- a United Express or Continental Connection flight -- the mainline carrier has no cost exposure if it tells the operator to cancel or if the partner does not operate for any reason. Mann said for the airlines' own flights, it most likely wouldn't have to pay crew salaries or fuel expenses if the flight is canceled because of weather.
Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, however, said that that extended tarmac situations typically tend to come from freak weather or some unusual situation that the airline wasn't prepared for.
"With these massive events, it's all hands on deck at airline operations offices and they preemptively cancel flights for days knowing that the airport will likely be closed with no realistic chance of getting flights in/out," Baker said.
Anne Banas, executive editor of travel Web site SmarterTravel, said that the airlines are probably canceling mainly because of the storms, not the fines.
"It's probably prudent and much safer," she said, "to cancel flights before the storm, which will prevent many people from heading out to the airport and getting stranded there."