Multiple winter storms wreak havoc on air travel across nation

By Michael Fabey
This week's blizzard crippled airline operations from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard, causing more than 5,000 flight cancellations, according to the aviation-tracking company FlightStats.

That is believed to be the most planes pulled out of the skies at any one time since the days immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the loss of business is certain to hit airlines' margins hard in the first quarter.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, estimated that ATA member airlines cancelled close to 13,000 flights between Feb. 5 and 10, resulting in as many as 1 million passengers being delayed, rerouted or stranded, forced to reshuffle hotel stays, meetings, car rental reservations and other travel services.

"This very well could be the most significant weather event in a decade," he said. "From my recollection, only 9/11 resulted in more cancellations."

Record snowfalls forced the closing of several airports in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, including those serving Washington, where the federal government just gave up on local roads and transit systems, granting federal employees an unprecedented four consecutive snow days.

In terms of overall flight cancellations, LaGuardia was the worst hit, cancelling 783 flights between Wednesday and Thursday, FlightStats reported late Thursday. Philadelphia came in second with 738 cancellations, followed by Baltimore-Washington International with 678.

The worst-hit region was New York, whose three airports saw 1,854 cancellations. The three airports in the Washington metro area reported 1,847 cancellations.

Although some 500 flights were canceled at O'Hare on Tuesday, it's not all that rare for airports in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit to be knocked off the grid a couple times each winter. It's far more unusual up and down the more temperate Eastern Seaboard.

Delta, the nation's largest airline, canceled about 960 flights on Feb. 10 and planned to scrub another 450 the following day.

And as the week progressed, it appeared that more weather worries could be in store for Delta and other carriers serving the southern tier, as a new storm began to move eastward after dumping six inches of snow on Dallas.

Throughout the week, airlines were waiving cancellation and rebooking fees for affected passengers.

A major issue in dealing with this second storm was that many airlines and airports in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were still trying to dig out from the previous week's snowfall.

"To get a second wave really hinders the carriers' ability to recover," Castelveter said. "This storm, however, is a one-two-punch combination. Even the airports that are operating don't have the full complement of resources. They have a lot of snow they need to move."

The airlines, he said, "are doing everything possible to accommodate passengers who need to travel. They proactively have been scheduling flights, and in some cases canceling flights, in order to keep other parts of their system running. Their immediate focus is on safe operations. We will get through it, at some cost."

Airlines build snow-cancellation and other weather-related costs into their budgets. "But in places like D.C., Virginia and Maryland, we've gotten far more snow than expected," Castelveter said.

To get an idea of how much more snow certain areas have received, consider this: With the Feb. 10 storm, this winter so far has dumped 72.3 inches in Baltimore, 54.9 inches in Washington and 70.3 inches in Philadelphia, eclipsing previous records of 62.5 inches in Baltimore and 65.5 inches in Philadelphia in 1995-96, and 54.4 inches in Washington in 1898-99.
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