Winter weather has wreaked havoc on air travel


Airplanes waiting at Logan Airport in Boston on Feb. 5, as scores of flights were canceled or delayed. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

The first six weeks of the year have brought a seemingly endless series of headaches for air travelers, which is likely to continue with a snowstorm in the Mid-Atlantic and an ice storm potentially battering Atlanta and the Carolinas this week.

Winter storms this year have dumped snow across the country, brought major cities to a standstill, caused temperatures to plummet and canceled scores of flights. And if it seems like the flight cancellations were more widespread than they have been in recent years, it’s not your imagination.

There were 39,991 cancellations in January, according to FlightAware. That’s nearly as many cancellations in a single month as there were in the five previous months combined. The last time the number of cancellations in a recent month even came close to that scale was in February 2011, when there were 34,000 flights halted.

To put it another way: There were more flights canceled in January than over any back-to-back two-month span between January 2011 (the earliest month for which FlightAware provided cancellation data) and December 2013. And these disruptions were costly, with cancellations and delays costing passengers more than $2.5 billion, according to one estimate.

Which airport saw the most cancellations last month? Chicago’s O’Hare, and it wasn’t even close. O’Hare had more than 5,000 cancellations, according to Mark Duell, FlightAware’s vice president for operations. This is nearly three times as many cancellations as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the runner-up, which had about 1,800 flights nixed. Chicago’s share of the cancellations shouldn’t be much of a surprise, since Chicago saw 33.7 inches of snow.

The most severely hit airport in the Northeast was Philadelphia International Airport, which had 1,500 cancellations. Philadelphia had a record three snowfalls of at least six inches before Feb. 1, including 13 inches falling during a single day.

As of Tuesday afternoon, February 2014 had already seen 12,000 cancellations, which means more than 52,000 flights to, from and within the U.S. have been canceled so far this year.

The misery is expected to continue as more winter weather looms. Forecasts are calling for significant snow in Washington as well as snow and other issues in Philadelphia, Boston and New York (plus the ice storm anticipated in Atlanta). For travelers, this means cancellations and delays at multiple key hubs, which could reverberate across the national air travel system.

Airlines are already reacting to the weather, with American, JetBlue, United and Delta announcing that they will waive fees for rescheduling flights.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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