— Extended tarmac delays may not be a thing of the past just yet, but more canceled flights are almost certainly part of the future.
According to government statistics released Thursday, three domestic flights sat on the tarmac for more than three hours in December. That brought last year’s total to 126 flights, down 86 percent from the year before.
Unfortunately, nearly 19,700 flights were also canceled during the month as record-breaking winter storms rolled across the country. That was 3.7 percent of scheduled flight operations and a 32 percent jump over December 2009.
Funny thing is, on-time performance stayed the same (72 percent), a fact that suggests there was something in the air other than blowing snow.
Cancel early, recover quicker
While the scale of cancellations has been staggering — there were another 33,000 in January, 4.07 percent of operations, according to FlightStats.com — statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. Potentially more significant than the numbers themselves is the changing nature of the cancellation process. Instead of waiting for bad weather to hit, airlines are scrapping flight schedules before the snow even flies.
During the latest spate of storms, for example, Delta started canceling flights anywhere from 36 to 72 hours beforehand, said spokesman Anthony Black: “Our goal is to cancel flights as early as possible so we can notify passengers and give them enough time to make the best decision about making changes to their travel plans. If we wait, that window is a lot shorter.”
Canceling flights in advance also allows the airlines to move aircraft and crews out of the danger zone, where snow-removal and de-icing operations can impede the return to normal operations. Needless to say, the situation gets even more challenging when half the country is getting pounded as happened late last month.
“When there’s minimal snow, it can take 15 to 20 minutes to de-ice the planes,” said JetBlue spokesperson Alison Croyle. “If there’s more, it can take much longer.” To avoid the problem — and to minimize the cascading delays that can follow — the airline parks planes in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale until the weather improves.
For the airlines, canceling flights in advance also means fewer chances to run afoul of the three-hour tarmac-delay rule, a rule that more or less owes its passage to extended strandings in the winters of 2006 and 2007. “Because there’s a finite amount of time involved, you have to be more precise in how and where you trim flights,” said Black.
Such efforts, of course, offer small consolation for travelers forced to make new plans because their flight has been pre-emptively canceled. “What’s frustrating for customers is when flights are canceled 24 or 36 hours before a storm and it’s still sunny outside,” said Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights. “But the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
For passengers, too. “I think we’d all rather be stuck at home than stuck in a terminal somewhere,” said Mike Benjamin, CEO of FlightView.com. “Knowing a flight’s going to be canceled in advance allows you to weather the storm in a more comfortable way.”
Or get proactive, as Kathleen Ameche of Chicago did during the latest series of storms. Trying to get home from New York, Ameche watched the United website, called the airline the moment it posted an advisory waiving change fees and caught a flight a day earlier, just before the system shut down.
“I’m a firm believer that travelers need to take matters into their own hands and work the system,” said the “traveler in chief” of WomanRoadWarrior.com. “Different days, times, airlines, cities — everything is negotiable.”
Proactive tactics for travelers
As Ameche suggests, being proactive may be more important than ever. Factor in staffing cutbacks — industry employment has shrunk by a quarter over the last decade — and it’s obvious that trying to salvage travel plans at the airport is not the best approach. Instead, take advantage of every tool in the road-warrior arsenal:
Monitor your airline’s website at the first hint of trouble. “Even if the airline hasn’t canceled your flight,” said Counter, “they may post an advisory that will let you change your plans without penalty.” Better to cut a trip short by a day than prolong it for several.
Sign up for flight alerts, from both your airline and one of the services that aggregates information from multiple airlines. “If your flight is codeshared, your airline may only be marketing it,” said Meara McLaughlin, vice president for FlightStats.com. “If they’re not operating it, they may or may not have the latest status data.”
Don’t give up on the phone. Can’t get through on the main reservation number? If you’re a frequent flier, try your airline’s mileage plan line. Ritter Hoy of Columbus, Ohio, did that for a recent Delta flight and was immediately connected with an agent who helped her make alternative arrangements.
Get social. No tweet will get you a seat if planes aren’t flying, but following your airline on Twitter can also help you bypass the busy signal. “The difference is that [@DeltaAssist] agents are actively looking for people with problems,” said Black. “If there’s a solution, they’re able to provide it while someone else might still be waiting on a phone line.”
Finally, if worst comes to worst — i.e., you find yourself physically stranded at the airport — inquire about any airport-run passenger assistance programs. Many major airports, including those in Dallas, Denver and Chicago, keep concessions open, make amenity kits available and offer cots, blankets and pillows during major snow events. Last month, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey even handed out free WiFi cards so stranded travelers could access their carriers’ websites.
Eventually, of course, the weather will improve, although it’s safe to say that the airlines will continue to rely on pre-emptive cancellations. At the same time, the combination of fuller planes and fewer employees makes it even more imperative that travelers take charge when problems arise.
“A well-informed traveler is a happy traveler,” said Benjamin. “Or at least a less unhappy one.”