With Nowhere for Snow To Go, Airline Cancellations Spike

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Flying to places like Chicago or New York in the wintertime is always a gamble, and this year is no different. Blizzards howling across the Midwest en route to the East Coast have snarled flights from coast to coast.

“Chicago is the hub for three of our four major airlines — American, United and Southwest,” said Bart Littlefield, vice president for business development at FlightView, a flight-tracking website. “If Chicago’s closed, you don’t make the connection… you don’t end up getting where you want to go.

Between December 1st and yesterday, 4,278 flights out of Chicago had been cancelled — 3,706 out of O’Hare alone, according to consulting firm masFlight. And New York City’s three area airports have been responsible for 6,924 cancellations in that time period.

While frustrating for fliers, this number of cancellations is actually typical, airline analysts say.

While last year’s polar vortex grounded an unprecedented number of planes across a wide swath of the country, even this weekend’s cold snap in the Northeast won’t be frigid enough to freeze ground equipment or ice over planes.

The problem this year has been snow and more snow.

“In Boston, there’s been so much snow there isn’t anywhere to go,” Littlefield said. “They push it all into areas where they have giant sewers that heat up and they melt it,” he said, a task that entails running plows continuously during storms.

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport usually is the single airport with the highest number of cancellations because of winter weather, said Mark Duell, vice president of operations at flight-tracking site FlightAware, while New York is the city that disrupts air traffic the most if it gets snowed in.

“There are three airports, and they’re all busy airports,” he said.

“If you’re in any hub, it becomes a ripple effect because the downline airports for the connection get impacted,” said Tulinda Larsen, president of masFlight. This year, because the bulk of cancellations have been in Chicago, New York and Boston, more of the flights have been JetBlue and Southwest, Larsen said.

While frustrating for travelers trying to get to or from these cities, this actually creates less of a ripple effect since these low-fare carriers don’t operate on a traditional hub-and-spoke model. “When they have a linear route, they can just take a segment out, [or] they can overfly and keep the aircraft continuing on its route,” she said.

Stay-at-home-mom Nicole Roffe was stranded in Puerto Rico for two days earlier this week when her flight home to New York City was cancelled not once, but twice.

Roffe, who is deaf and was traveling alone, said communicating with the agents at the airport was a challenge. “I had a hard time lipreading the workers because they all had accents,” she said in an online conversation.

“I spent all day Sunday the 8th at the airport desperately trying to find another flight,” she said. Instead, she had to pay $500 for two nights at a hotel during the island’s peak tourism season, because cheaper lodgings were sold out.

Roffe had to ask her mother-in-law for help booking the hotel, since phone communication can be difficult for her. “With the video relay many people don’t understand what it is, and they hang up,” she said.

Although her flight back on Tuesday was without incident, Roffe said the experience was stressful. “I just wish I didn't have to hang out at the airport all day worrying,” she said.