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Record number of flights canceled


February 14. 2014 11:21PM
By Scott Mayerowitz AP Airlines Writer



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NEW YORK — The relentless snow and ice storms this winter have led to the highest number of flight cancellations in more than 25 years, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.


U.S. airlines have canceled more than 75,000 domestic flights since Dec. 1, including roughly 14,000 this week. That’s 5.5 percent of the 1.35 million flights scheduled during that period, according to AP calculations based on information provided by flight tracking site FlightAware.


It’s the highest total number and highest percent of cancellations since at least the winter of 1987-1988, when the Department of Transportation first started collecting cancellation data.


Mother Nature isn’t entirely to blame. A mix of cost-cutting measures and new government regulations has made airlines more likely to cancel flights and leave fliers scrambling to get to their destination.


On Thursday, more than 70 percent of flights were canceled in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Charlotte, N.C. thanks to a winter storm that paralyzed most air traffic along the East Coast. Ice storms this winter have caused major headaches in typically warm cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.


“This year is off to a brutal start for airlines and travelers,” says FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker. “Not only is each storm causing tens of thousands of cancellations, but there’s been a lot of them.”


And February still has two weeks left.


Making things worse, airlines have been cutting unprofitable flights and packing more passengers into planes. That’s been great for their bottom line but has created a nightmare for passengers whose flights are canceled due to a storm. Other planes are too full to easily accommodate the stranded travelers. Many must wait days to secure a seat on another flight.


Airlines are quicker to cancel flights these days, sometimes a day in advance of a storm. 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.




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