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Air travel's $6 billion winter of discontent

A departure board at Boston's Logan airport on Jan. 2.
Yoon S. Byun | Boston Globe | Getty Images
A departure board at Boston's Logan airport on Jan. 2.

As another powerful winter storm pummeled the East Coast on Monday, tens of thousands of airline passengers faced another round of cancellations and delays that will leave them stranded far from their destination.

Those delays will also take another bite out of the U.S. economy.

So far this winter, severe weather has taken a nearly $6 billion toll on passengers, airlines and airports, according to masFlight, a software solutions company specializing in airline operations.

More than a million flights in and out of U.S. airports—regardless of their origin or destination—have been canceled or delayed since December, snarling travel for more than 90 million passengers. The lost productivity and out-of-pocket costs totals about $5.3 billion, compared with a typical winter average of about $2.9 billion, according to masFlight estimates.

With airlines better managing their capacity, flights even in the best weather are fuller than they've been in years. That means millions of storm-stranded passengers can find themselves stuck in the wrong city for days.

New regulations governing pilot schedules and tarmac delays are also complicating the usual snafus brought by bad weather.

Airline earnings have taken a hit, with as much as $500 million in added operating costs and lost revenue, according to masFlight estimates.

"This cumulative effect of the weather will have a big effect on profitability in the first quarter," Gordon Bethune, former CEO at Continental Airlines, told CNBC.

Some airlines have had an especially rough time, in particular those with major operations in East Coast hubs repeatedly socked in by snowfall.

The overall cancellation rate for all major carriers has been about 5.5 percent, roughly double the average for the past five winters. United Airlines has canceled 7.3 percent of flights, nearly triple the recent average, followed by American (6.9 percent) and US Airways (6.2 percent.)

In contrast, Hawaiian Airlines has dodged this winter's stormy snafus entirely, with a zero percent cancellation rate, according to masFlight data.

"Since it's against the law to stay out there for more than three hours, you cancel a flight," Bethune said. "Unfortunately for many passengers, there's no seat available on the subsequent flights, so that's having an effect as well. "

Airports feeling the economic pain, too, on both sides of the ledger. While they're footing a bigger bill for snow removal and other operating costs, revenues have fallen because of reduced fees from parking lots and slower concession sales, as well as other lost income. The total impact comes to about $4.5 million, masFlight figures.

Air travel is just one corner of the economy that's been chilled by one of the worst winters in memory.

Home sales have been hammered (falling 5.1 percent in January) as many would-be buyers stayed put. Car dealers have seen foot traffic dry up once the snow started falling.

Bad weather has affected factories, too, according to recent surveys by the Federal Reserve banks in Dallas; Richmond, Va.; and Kansas City, Mo. Nationwide, durable goods orders dropped 1.0 percent in January and were revised lower for December.

Economists note that much of that lost business will likely be made up once the snow melts and better weather arrives, as homebuyers resume their house hunts, and carbuyers follow through and replace their aging clunkers.

But airlines and airports find it difficult to make up lost business, as whenever a flight is canceled, some passengers simply forgo the trip altogether.

By CNBC's John Schoen. Follow him on Twitter @johnwschoen or email him.