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Canceled Flights No Longer Mean You're Stranded

Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As airlines canceled more than 1,500 flights the last two days, travelers largely made alternate plans from the comfort of their homes or hotels. (Read more: Hundreds of Flights Canceled as Storm Pounds Eastern US)

That hasn't always been the case during big winter storms. It used to be that such widespread cancellations would leave travelers stranded at airports, sleeping atop their bags and competing for scraps of food and drink.

Now, airlines are much more likely to cancel flights ahead of time and let passengers know right away. Industry analysts attribute this pre-emptive strike to better technology plus new federal rules that punish airlines if they keep passengers waiting in planes on airport tarmacs for too long.

"Airlines are now totally proactive instead of being essentially reactive," said Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Proactive means cancel selected flights in advance, re-book passengers in advance, phone and e-mail passengers frequently, etc."

Long tarmac delays can cost them big money. The Transportation Department can fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights. Earlier this year, the department hit JetBlue Airways with a $90,000 fine for a long tarmac delay at New York's JFK airport. (Read more:Are Rules Limiting Tarmac Delays Working?)

"Not stranding passengers is now priority No. 1 as the (Transportation Department) hammer means millions of dollars in fines and 'being made an example of,' " Bender says. "Up until the new (department) policy went into effect, priority No. 1 was moving planes and crews. Passengers were viewed as something akin to 'glorified cargo.' There were no real penalties other than meal vouchers, etc., for having people wait and be inconvenienced for hours or even days."

Airlines won't comment on whether or not the new rule makes them more likely to cancel flights. But airline executives say it's made them plan better for bad weather.

"I don't know that it's made us cancel more flights," said Wayne Newton, managing director of system operation control for Alaska Airlines. "It's just driven us to be smarter about what we do with airplanes when there is a big storm."

Extensive cancellations can have a ripple effect on an airline's entire system. And it can take 24 to 48 hours for things to get back to normal, Newton says, because passengers have to be rebooked and crew members have to take their legal periods of rest. (Read more: Flight Delayed or Canceled? How to Get Reaccommodated Fast)

Newton said the carrier has a sophisticated system in place to anticipate storms and come up with contingency plans.

For instance, the airline doesn't rely only on the National Weather Service for predictions. It has contracts with other vendors to get data in four-hour windows. Analysts then compare all the information to decide if and when to cancel flights.

"I think we've gotten a lot better at being precise when the weather is going to hit, where and when," he says. "Canceling prior makes it very easy. You know where your crews are and you can put them where you need them the next day."

Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways, said the airline comes up with de-icing and staffing plans for winter weather emergencies months in advance of the season. "It's in the heat of the summer that they're thinking about it," she says.

Airlines have also gotten more flexible about letting passengers reschedule their flights in anticipation of a storm without incurring the usual change fees. That cuts down on long lines at the airports.

Darryl Jenkins, an airline analyst and chairman of the American Aviation Institute, points out that airlines now have many more ways to communicate with passengers instantly, from e-mail to text messaging to social media. "The communications modes are quicker. Everyone is following on Twitter," he says. "You have a lot of options out there."

Morgan Durrant, a Delta Air Lines spokesman, said that in addition to waiving rebooking fees, the airline offers passengers more ways to change flights, such as via apps on their smartphones.

"Delta has invested significantly in this area in recent years," Durrant says. "Self-service functionality to change flights via the Fly Delta app, at Delta.com and at airport kiosks has all contributed to keeping customers out of airports during these events."

As problematic as a snow storm can be, Jenkins says that winter storms are actually a bit easier for airlines to deal with than summer thunderstorms.

"In the wintertime, it's easier because when a storm front comes in like this one you know about it further in advance," he said. "In the summertime, a storm comes in with less warning."

That's not to say it doesn't create widespread headaches. Airlines are operating fuller flights during the holidays.

"Anytime you have load factors that can be 80 percent or 90 percent and you cancel any flight, it could take up to a day and a half to bring people into the system," Jenkins said.

For those who made their flights on Wednesday, the weather made for a less than pleasant travel experience.

Kevin Boucher, 29, was stranded on the tarmac and at the gate for more than three hours Wednesday at Dulles International Airport outside Washington as he tried to get home after visiting relatives. His United flight to Austin was due to take off at 8:20 a.m., the director of a consulting firm said.

But it was delayed because of de-icing and refueling. "Now they're waiting to de-ice again," he said at 11:20 a.m. "Everyone is restless," he e-mailed.

Passengers had the option of getting off, he said, but were told if they did, they might not be let back on if the plane suddenly got the green light to depart.

At 12:20 p.m., he e-mailed better news. "Still on runway, but about to leave."

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