Airlines Cancelling Flights to Avoid Fines

Dec. 27, 2010: Snow removal crews work to clear runways at Philadelphia International Airport. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays and shutting down major airports and rail lines for days.

Airlines managed to keep their on-time rate for December flat with year-ago results despite severe weather and a higher rate of flight cancellations, with carriers scrubbing scheduled flights in part to avoid costly tarmac delays.

Cancellations in December rose to 3.7 percent of all scheduled flights for the 18 largest domestic carriers, versus 2.8 percent in the same month last year, according to data provided Thursday. The on-time rate for the month was 72 percent, the same as a year ago.

“Airlines are pre-canceling simply to avoid a potential tarmac delay,” said Terry Trippler, a travel analyst at consultancy Rules to Know.'

Starting in April, airlines face fines of up to $27,000 a person on aircraft sitting on a tramac for more than three hours. Lawmakers passed the rules following a string of horror stories of passengers being stuck on planes for long periods of time without food, fresh water or clean lavatories.

Pre-canceling flights have helped airlines avoid such costly fees, but it has also provided some benefit to fliers. With the use of social networking Web sites and text messages, airlines have gotten better at keeping customers up to date on their flight status.

“If they are notified of a cancellation early enough, they don’t even have to go to the airport,” Trippler said. “The only problem is that because of heavy load factors, you don’t always have a flight to get out on right away.”

Load factors among major carriers, which reflect how many seats are purchased on an average flight, have been at record levels for the industry following two years of seat capacity reductions.

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