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Record US flight cancellations in winter; storms, cost cuts, new regulations strand passengers

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The relentless snow and ice storms in the United States 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 cancelled more than 75,000 domestic flights since Dec. 1, including more than 14,000 this week. That's 5.5 per cent 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 per cent of U.S. cancellations since at least the winter of 1987-1988, when the Department of Transportation first started collecting cancellation data.

America'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 travellers," 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 per cent of flights were cancelled in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Charlotte, North Carolina. Even typically warm — or at least warmer — weather cities were not immune. The world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, was paralyzed Wednesday by ice and snow.

Making things worse for travellers 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 cancelled due to a storm. Other planes are too full to easily accommodate the stranded travellers. Many must wait days to secure a seat on another flight.

This winter is even more painful than 2000-2001, when 66,000 — or 4.2 per cent 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. 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 cancelling quickly reduces expenses.

In May 2010, a new U.S. 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.

Not all of the cancellations are tied to regulations. Airlines have learned in recent years that while a large number of early cancellations 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.

There are also financial considerations. A plane circling above an airport hoping to land, or even one waiting on a taxiway, burns a lot of fuel.

Flying during a winter storm also requires deicing, a process that takes time and costs the airlines money.

The airlines do lose money by cancelling flights. United recently said that early January storms cost it $80 million in lost revenue.

But the sting isn't as bad as you might think.

Jim Corridore, an airline analyst with S&P Capital IQ, notes that United also saved millions in fuel and salaries by not having to fly the cancelled flights. And some level of storm-related expenses is already built into airline budgets.

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Reporters Suzette Laboy in Miami and Ray Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott .

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