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Tab for winter flight cancellations: $2.4 billion

Passengers sit after their flight to New York was cancelled at Miami International Airport on January 26, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Northeast coast airports are canceling thousands of flights as a major winter storm hits the North East U.S.
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Passengers sit after their flight to New York was cancelled at Miami International Airport on January 26, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Northeast coast airports are canceling thousands of flights as a major winter storm hits the North East U.S.

It's not even spring, and airline flight cancellations have already cost American passengers some $2.2 billion.

Add in the cost to airlines and the total tab comes to more like $2.4 billion, according to estimates from flight data tracker masFlight.

Most of that represents out-of-pocket costs for hotels, meals, alternative travel arrangements shelled out by the roughly 4.5 million stranded air travelers from December through February, along with the wider economic impact of lost productivity from canceled flights.

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As the East Coast dug out Monday from yet another snowfall to kick off the month of March, hundreds of airline passengers again scrambled to work around another series of flight delays and cancellations.

But despite one of the worst winters for some Northeast hubs, the total number of delays and cancellations this winter has been much lower than last year, according to an analysis by masFlight.

The winter of 2015 will be remembered for bitter cold temperatures in much of the country. But the level of precipitation was relatively mild, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That helps explain why the 63,000 flights canceled in the last three months fell well short of the more than 100,000 cancellations during the same period last year, according to masFlight president Tulinda Larsen.

"The heavy snow has been concentrated in the Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston areas," she said. "Other areas, such as Dallas, Denver, Charlotte have had winter storms, but fewer than in a typical winter."

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Airlines have yet to report their storm-related costs, but based on the number of flight cancellations, masFlight estimates the financial impact on carriers has topped $185 million, which is still less than the six-year industry average of $194 million for the December-January period.

Airline meal and hotel vouchers, though, rarely cover anything like the full impact of a flight cancellation to passengers in terms of the cost of rebooking and lost productivity.

Still, that $2.2 billion in passenger losses this winter pales in comparison to the $4.2 billion losses last year and is roughly in line with the $2.4 billion average passenger losses for the last six winters.

For airlines, the cost of canceling varies widely from flight to flight and from one carrier to the next. For a short hop on a regional jet the cost might be as little as $1,000 per flight, masFlight estimated, based on a model of airline costs. For a large wide body on 12-hour international route, the cost could be more than $40,000. On average, weighted by size and distances flown, each canceled flight costs the airline $5,770.

The impact goes beyond just the lost revenue from ticket sales. The list includes added costs for rescheduling crews, including transportation and hotel costs. Even if the plane doesn't take off, the airline still incurs maintenance cost to get it ready and stock it with food. Ticket agents still show up for work to deal with stranded passengers at the gate.

Ground crews still need to shuffle schedules and try to get planes back where they were headed before the cancellation. Those costs can range from about $2,700 an hour for a carrier operating a regional jet to as more than $11,500 an hour for a wide-body, according to masFlight.

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Airlines see some savings on fuel and landing fees from flights that never get off the ground. But those are offset by direct costs to refund tickets and accommodate stranded passengers with reimbursements for hotels, meals and transportation.

Those outlays can make up a big chunk of the cost of canceling a flight. For a regional jet with a few dozen seats, the airline might hand out less than $500 on meals and other incidentals and about $1,300 for hotel rooms. For a wide-body heading overseas, the cost of accommodating hundreds of stranded passengers could hit $30,000, masFlight estimates.