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 more than 14,000 this week. That's 5.5 percent of the 1.37 million flights scheduled during that period, according to 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.
"This year is off to a brutal start for airlines and travelers," said FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker. "Not only is each storm causing tens of thousands of cancellations, but there's been a lot of them."
Mother Nature isn't entirely to blame. Cost-cutting measures and new government regulations have made airlines more likely to cancel flights and leave fliers scrambling to reach their destinations.
Making things worse for travelers this winter, 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.
Carol Cummings, 23, was trying to fly Thursday on United Airlines from the Washington, D.C., area to Los Angeles to visit a high school friend for the long holiday weekend. The flight was canceled and Cummings was automatically rebooked for a flight on Monday — the day she was supposed to return home. After two and a half hours on hold, United offered to move the trip to another weekend — for an extra $150 — or to refund her ticket.
"I am annoyed and surprised at the lack of customer concern I experienced," she said. Cummings is waiting for her refund.
Airlines are quicker to cancel flights these days, sometimes a day in advance of a storm. It's rarer to see planes parked at the edge of runways for hours, hoping for a break in the weather, or passengers sleeping on airport cots and cobbling together meals from vending machines.
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 cancellations 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.
But the sting isn't as bad as you might think.
Jim Corridore, an airline analyst with S&P Capital IQ, notes that United also saved millions in fuel and salaries by not having to fly the canceled flights. Some level of storm-related expenses is already built into airline budgets.
"We're not going to have this type of winter, every winter," Corridore says.