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cancelled canceled airport departure board flight statusJust a week after snowstorms grounded air traffic across Europe, the U.S. Northeast found itself besieged by a blizzard of its own. The storm has forced the cancellation of nearly 10,000 flights over the past few days — and a columnist for Daily Finance, Peter Cohan, notes that many of these flights were canceled even before the snow started.

Cohan’s flight was one of them. “On Sunday, my family had been expecting to fly back home to Boston from Milwaukee,” he writes. “But Frontier Airlines … canceled our flight, cheerfully notifying us that we could catch another one five days later.” Rather than sitting around in Milwaukee for the better part of a week, Cohan and his family rented a car and drove home instead. Even though his plane would have arrived before the worst of the blizzard that hit Boston, Cohan instead had to shell out extra money for the rental car, gas, hotels and meals for the two days it took him to drive across the country.

The early axing of Cohan’s flight is part of a growing trend that New York Times aviation reporter Matthew Wald calls “pre-cancellation.” Hoping to keep their planes from being stranded at airports where bad weather is expected, many airlines are opting not to fly to those airports at all, instead canceling the flights and sending the planes to other unaffected destinations. It’s good news for some travelers, as Wald explains:

“The advantage is suppose you have a plane that was supposed to go from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Orlando, if they [had] flown into New York, they could not have gotten back to Charlotte and then they couldn’t gotten from Charlotte to Orlando. This way, at least, they can fly back and forth between Charlotte and Orlando.”

This strategy also helps protect the airlines from financial losses by keeping people moving (and seats full) instead of leaving planes stranded for days at snow-struck airports. And it makes it easier for the airlines to avoid the hefty fines that the Department of Transportation has instituted for planes that sit more than three hours on a tarmac — up to $27,500 per passenger.

But is this strategy fair to passengers like Cohan, whose plane could have arrived safely before the blizzard hit? Is his anger justified, or are the airlines simply making the best of a bad situation? Let us know what you think in the comments.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

11 Responses to “Airlines, Not Snow, Strand Fliers”

  1. Pemberton says:

    I am never surprised when the airlines do things like this. It’s always about the bottom line. Never about the passengers. But what can anyone do about it?

  2. william ferrari says:

    what aboue cruises crusins i south eastasia :eg (south korea – north korea), would they allter there sailing routine or cancel trip ,saailinf cherry blossom cruise inc (japan south korea hong kong & shangie /? IN NARCH 2011 ?????
    PRINCESS LINE SUN PRINCESS

  3. Eric Graham The Conversion Doctor says:

    I say it’s not fare for the passengers, but yeah, what can we really do about it?

  4. Richard Jester says:

    Everything in life has risk. If you want to transfer all the risk in yours to someone else, pay for it. Therefore, if you want to fly to Boston in the winter, you have taken a risk. If your bet doesn’t win, it costs you more. The airlines either make money or quit flying. Stranding a plane in Boston for five days is a terrible financial idea that will lose money every time.

    Boy am I glad that cruise lines change itineraries to avoid hurricanes, even if I don’t want to go to Jamaica!

    So many of us are no longer willing to accept that nothing in life is guaranteed!! I booked a condo this week in a place where it rarely snows. I’m sitting in my condo this week surrounded by melting snow. My plans have changed, but were not ruined. I took risk, placed a bet, and lost. But I’m still smiling. Spent three delightful days with my granddaughters indoors and building snowmen. Going to the acquarium today because we can get around again.

    I’ll step down from my soapbox now.

  5. DaveS says:

    This is a damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation. Weather forecasts are getting better, and it’s easier to notify people of changes with all the mobile devices carried around now. Offering another flight five days later – before it’s clear such measures would be inevitable – is really bad service, and Cohan is right to be upset in this instance.

    I think it is also true that the new tarmac delay rules are part of the problem. The DOT simply set the penalties too high for airlines to risk them, and lots of people are going to find themselves stranded preemptively. The DOT should have instituted a system of lesser fines, payable directly to the passengers, that would start after three hours and increase according to the amount of time. For example, $1,000 per person after three hours, and $500 per half hour after that. In this case, the airline would still have an incentive to avoid tarmac delays, but not see itself as having no choices and needing to act to cancel flights ahead of time when weather threatens them. With such a system many passengers would be much less grumpy about waiting; some would even be hoping the wait extends longer.

    The airlines have no ability to control the weather, and only a degree of influence on airport operations. They deserve some of the blame for this situation, but not all of it.

    • missyB says:

      DaveS. you are right on…thanks for posting your well-considered thoughts and a very viable suggestion for improving such situations. FAA/DOT, listen up!

  6. Ruthie says:

    It certainly makes little sense when it happens to YOUR family! Our kids found the 3rd time to be the charm this Christmas. Their Delta flight for Christmas Day was summarily canceled on Dec. 23rd before a flake of snow ever fell. They were re-booked on the following day, trekked out to the airport, only to discover that the flight they were scheduled to be on was to be late leaving and that they would miss the connection: that meant they couldn’t get ticketed until Tuesday! So Tuesday, bright and early, Mom, Dad, and baby go to DIA to try for a third time. This time time they made it and you would think all problems were over Not so. They had a quite tight connection- but DID have confirmed seats. That apparently means nothing to Delta……they ran to the next gate, two concourses distant and got there in time, only to find that the jet-way and door were still open- but Delta had given their seats away. Nice work, Delta! You really practice the Golden Rule, especially when a mother, father and baby are traveling at Christmas!
    Ultimate good news is that, in spite of Delta’s very best intentions, they finally made it and are here with us :)

  7. Judy Miller says:

    I am not surprised. We sometimes think we are the only business left that cares about their customers and we automatically anticipate “Plan B” every time we leave the terminal. It is only good business and our customers know that we honor our promises. The airlines, cruise lines and most others are becoming greedy about the bottom line and their customers pay more all the time. It is just disappointing that they can get away with these tactics and there are no consequences. For every 10 calls we get, we turn down 8 or 9 because we feel we cannot give them 110% for whatever reason and therefore do not take the business so we protect our reputation. Maybe we lost a customer but, surprise, they call back next time they want our services and they are our biggest advertisements. It is time for all business to get back to giving their customers their dollar’s worth and you will then see more business than you know what to do with.

  8. Linda Wright says:

    We started our trek home in Cuzco, Peru. Our flight (TACA, a South American company) was delayed several hours for weather (common in Cuzco, so we booked connection for late afternoon). The gate crew brought out sodas, water, and coffee, and an assortment of cookies and crackers even though there was a food stand next to the gate. The English speaking agent made the rounds of the English speakers every half hour to keep us updated.

    We got to Miami late Friday night, and had continuing flights booked on Delta for Saturday morning. We read an email early Saturday from Delta saying they had tried to contact us to tell us our flights were cancelled and rebooked for Tuesday. Neither of our cellphones showed a missed call, nor was there a message on our voice mail when we got home. My comment at the time was that they probably hadn’t sold a lot of seats on Christmas day, and that was the real reason they were cancelling before they even knew if weather would affect Atlanta.

    We rented a car in Miami, and drove home. We didn’t see a raindrop or snowflake the whole way up I-95, or in Augusta Georgia when we got to the airport to retrieve our car and turn in the rental. The airport was still open because American and US Air were still flying their scheduled flights.

    We’ve had a lot of reasons to compare and contrast International airlines with domestic companies in the past several months, and domestics lose every time. I really wish I had better airline choices for domestic travel. I remember when Delta was the company that really went the extra step for their passengers.

  9. Bill Shirey says:

    Airlines are businesses and not nonprofits…with customers (throughout their ENTIRE system, employees (sometimes residing in other cities), considerable fixed and volatile costs and inventory, leadership, stockholders, stringent governmental regulation, and tend to be more heavily at the mercy of significant weather events. There challenge is to provide safe, efficient, cost-effective transportation, in an environment of rising costs and low margin pricing…and hopefully thrive…but at least survive the sometimes looming threat of bankruptcy and/or liquidation. It’s time to scrapbook the old and accept the new economic realities of our global world…adapt and look for better solutions. There are many more of us now sharing a limited amount of resources. Let’s do the best we can, evaluate, learn from our mistakes, and move forward empowered with new knowledge and the desire and opportunity to succeed in meeting our practical, emotional, and economic human needs.

  10. missyB says:

    I have to side with the airlines on this strategy. The airlines are taking action to mitigate adverse situations for passengers by avoiding flying into anticipated snowbound airports. Yes, it creates other problems for those booked on the canceled flights but it is better than dumping those passengers into a snowbound airport and increasing the delay of getting ALL passengers out of that airport. The passengers booked on the canceled flights should be thankful they weren’t among those sleeping on the airport floors for days. Canceling the flights in advance gave the passengers time to find other options, such as driving or rerouting on flights thru cities not affected by the snowstorm.

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