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Big Storms Mean Preemptive Cancellations

As of yesterday, American Airlines had canceled almost 500 flights as heavy winter weather descended on its main hub at Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW). The storm is forecast to move eastward over the next few days, raising the possibility of heavy Thanksgiving weekend cancellations at such busy easterly hubs as Atlanta and Charlotte. So far, no other big airline has announced similar cancellations; what the other airlines do depends on how the storm progresses.

Massive weather cancellations aren't limited to airports directly impacted by winter storms, either; canceled flights at any big airline's hub mean cancellations all across their networks because planes and crews can't get to where they're supposed to be. All in all, bad weather around any giant line's major hub is likely to disrupt travel system-wide for several days.

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If these cancellations seem to be more than usual, there's a reason. Many of them are preemptive, taken in advance of actual weather problems, to minimize the total disruption that results from sudden cancellations when the storm actually hits. Preemptive cancellations are encouraged in part as a response to the big fines airlines have to pay when they strand travelers in tarmac delays for more than three hours. Rather than risk problems like that during actual storms, airlines find it better to cancel flights in advance.

In general, when faced with massive cancellations, airlines allow affected travelers to rebook their trips with no change fee and—sometimes—with no increase in fare. But specifics vary, and American's response, so far, is not generous: If you're ticketed for trips through DFW on November 24 or 25, you can rebook for trips any time during November 23–26 without a change fee. Apparently, however, if the canceled trip is outbound on a round-trip ticket, you can't adjust the return trip. Moreover, American says "original inventory required," meaning that you can avoid a fare increase only when seats on alternative flights are available in your original ticket "inventory" or booking class. That's pretty restrictive, because if you're on a cheap ticket, cheap seats may no longer be available on flights that do operate. Also, that plus-or-minus one-day time window is very narrow. Of course, you can also cancel your trip, get a refund, and start all over at a later date. Historically, airlines have been more generous than American with rebooking options during massive weather-related cancellations. But there are no rules or requirements: Each airline decides what to do in each instance.

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