By Barbara Peterson

AFAR Media

January 23, 2020

Welcome to AFAR Answers: a deep dive into all your unanswered travel questions. Next up: Why are some flights canceled during inclement weather when others aren’t?

It’s a familiar tale. You leave home in the pouring rain for a flight that’s still listed as on time. But when you arrive at the airport, there it is displayed on the departure board—the flight’s been canceled. What’s worse, that same screen shows flights on other airlines to your destination that are still operating.

To the average traveler, the seemingly random nature of these decisions is perplexing. Ask an airline agent what’s going on, and the standard response is typically something along the lines of “It’s just the weather.” If that’s the reason, why aren’t all flights being canceled?

It turns out that there are actually many factors that play into the decision to scrub a flight. And aside from the rare extreme weather event that can shut down an entire airport (remember Snowmageddon, the massive 2010 blizzard that paralyzed much of the Northeast?), most airport hubs can and do stay open in foul weather, just not at full operating capacity. 

“Weather affects all the flights at an airport equally, but the way airlines respond is not equal,” said William McGee, aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers, an airline industry tell-all.

McGee said that when a busy airport is suddenly operating under strained circumstances due to weather, maintaining air safety is the key decision-driver. But beyond that, carriers are affected by many considerations. “It’s a collection of moving parts,” McGee noted. Decisions about when and why to cancel or delay flights are based on “availability of aircraft, crew scheduling, or maintenance demands.” And, he added, when you throw weather into the mix, that just further complicates everything.

The “cancellator” effect

Let’s be clear. When inclement weather strikes, it’s not that airlines are unprepared. Virtually all carriers have an internal team dedicated to pouncing on the problem when Mother Nature poses a threat. One of their tools is a computer algorithm that uses national weather forecasts and air traffic control advisories to recommend which flights should get canceled. Airline insiders have nicknamed it the “cancellator,” but the machine-generated hit list is just the start of the process. The rest is left up to the humans in the room who then make the tough calls.

“For the most extreme situations, like a major snowstorm, they will have the equivalent of a war room,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at market research and advisory firm Atmosphere Research Group. Harteveldt was also formerly an executive at TWA and Continental. 

“Let’s say you’re in a situation where an airport with 60 departures has to go down to 40; the airline [staff] is going to take a look and say, ‘How do [we] minimize the impact to consumers and the financial impact on my airline?’ ”

If an airline runs a lot of flights between any two airports, for example, it may choose to reduce frequencies and try to accommodate as many of the canceled passengers as they can on other departures. 

“They’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. And when it gets down to the micro level, considerations such as how many “high-value” passengers are on a flight, or whether there’s a large group heading to a cruise or an important event, could enter into deciding whose plans are going to be disrupted, Harteveldt explained.

Delays versus cancellations

The fact that airlines don’t have a lot of empty planes sitting around means that there is often a ripple effect in delays once weather starts impacting scheduling, according to Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

“A plane that comes in late can affect where that plane is going next. It is a very interconnected system that depends not only on weather in your location and on your route but in places all around the country,” said Ebenhoch.

Ultimately, the airlines’ main goal is to make flight alterations that will have the least impact on their customers. No airline, of course, actually wants to cancel a flight. It’s a big headache for them, and a costly one too.

“Airlines have different operating philosophies,” Harteveldt said. Some major airlines have made it clear that if there’s a choice between an outright cancellation or a very long delay, they’ll choose the latter.

But that can have unintended consequences too, as some airlines test the boundaries of what passengers will tolerate. The Department of Transportation (DOT) publishes an Air Travel Consumer Report each month, which shows that JetBlue and Delta had the lowest cancellation rates in November, the latest month for which statistics are available. That’s in keeping with their preference for instituting a longer delay, if necessary, rather than scrubbing a flight outright.

But it may be a case of picking your poison—for JetBlue that approach has resulted in a less-than-stellar on-time arrival rate.

The fact that most flights these days are packed to the gills doesn’t help either. Load factors are at historic highs, well over 80 percent, according to the DOT. “When you are at or near capacity, you don’t have as many options. In the old days, if you had canceled flights you could just send passengers over to another airline,” said McGee.

That said, most observers agree that airlines are doing a better job of notifying passengers in advance of a problem and rebooking them as early as possible. Sometimes they do too good a job. Harteveldt recalled a time when thousands of flights were canceled in the New York region ahead of a nor’easter storm that never materialized. Said Harteveldt, “There were a lot of furious people when the sun came out.”