Support Marketplace

Two words that cancel airline flights: Wintry Mix

Planes wait in line to take off from O'Hare International Airport February 3, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.

People into or out of New York, Philadelphia, and other East Coast cities this Thanksgiving are probably watching The Weather Channel -- or looking for text messages from their  airline, saying their flight is cancelled or delayed.  

But chances of getting trapped on a plane on the tarmac for hours are way, way down. There aren't as many horror stories about passengers bottled up for hours and hours, sometimes without food or even working bathrooms.

In 2010, the feds imposed big fines on airlines for those kinds of incidents. And they’re down. So that’s the good news.

The bad news:  More flights get cancelled. And airlines wait longer to board passengers. Which can itself mean longer delays. 

"The people are sitting in the lounge, they’re not on the plane," says Kenneth Button, who studies aviation policy at George Mason University. "The slot on the runway becomes available, and then the airline simply can’t take advantage of it."

Overall, the trade-off has worked, says Christopher Elliott, who writes a consumer-advice column for National Geographic Traveler.  

"It’s better to be inconvenienced right there at your point of origin than stuck somewhere," he says. "Or to even, god forbid, be stuck on a plane that’s parked on a runway somewhere and can’t go anywhere."

John Heimlich, an economist with the airlines’ trade group Airlines for America, says some passengers might prefer a wait on the tarmac to a cancelled flight. "If you’re not there for Thanksgiving Dinner, it’s not so much fun arriving on Friday," he says. "Missing a wedding. Missing a key business meeting. Missing a college graduation." 

To adjust, he says airlines have started notifying passengers earlier when their flight could have a problem. Sending texts.

And there’s social media. United tweeted this morning about options for travelers to re-book for cities where the weather was bad.  Cleveland.  Washington D.C. New York. 

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...