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 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.
Reservation systems now automatically rebook passengers on new flights — though not always the flight they want — and send a notification by email, phone or text message.
Keeping planes at airports outside of the storm’s path can protect equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen. It also allows airlines to let gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews stay home, too — keeping them fresh once they’re needed again.