Airline passenger Hossam Shalaby waits for his rescheduled flight to Orlando. (David Tulis / AP)
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 calculations based on information provided by flight tracking site FlightAware.
It’s the highest total number and highest percentage of cancellations since at least the winter of 1987-88, when the Department of Transportation started collecting cancellation data.
The nation’s air traffic system was still recovering Friday from the latest bout of bad weather. Flights were taking off again but thousands of passengers weren’t.
“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.”
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.
There were days this week where more than 70 percent of flights were canceled in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, N.C.
Bradley Voight, 25, was one of those passengers trapped in Atlanta after his Spirit Airlines flight to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Wednesday was canceled. After a night sleeping in the airport, he eventually got home late Thursday.
“It was fun because of the people I met, but it was terrible because of why I met them,” he noted Friday.
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.
This winter is even more painful than 2000-01, when 66,000 — or 4.2 percent of December, January and February scheduled flights — were scrapped.
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.