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Airlines Canceled 19,000 Flights in January

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A seemingly endless barrage of winter storms led to the cancellation of 19,134 flights in January, according to the latest data from the Department of Transportation (DOT). That’s the bad news. The lone bit of good news is that there was only one three-hour tarmac delay for the entire month.

Not only were flights canceled, but they were often, unsurprisingly, running late. In a release, the DOT says, “[Airlines] recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 76.3 percent in January, down from the 78.7 percent on-time rate of January 2010, but up from December 2010’s 72.0 percent rate.” December 2010, you may recall, ended on a sour note, as a major winter storm pummeled much of the eastern half of the country.

Similarly, the rate of cancellations was significantly higher than last January, and on par with December.

So what about those tarmac delays? The low number isn’t terribly surprising, considering airlines were proactively canceling flights before each storm. There were, however, quite a few more flights canceled after sitting on the tarmac for two or more hours: 46 in January 2011, up from 17 in January 2010. 29 flights with 100-plus people on board is a significant shift, and suggests airlines were trying to get some flights off the ground, but may have abandoned the idea due to the tarmac delay rule.

Overall, however, this statistic—number of flights canceled after spending two hours or more on the tarmac—hasn’t gone up too much: The DOT says the count increased from 268 between May 2009 and January 2010 to 312 between May 2010 and January 2011. That’s an increase of 44 flights over a nine-month period, with over half of the 44 coming in January.

So basically: It snowed a lot in January, and travel was a nightmare as a result. Airlines coped with the tarmac delay rule, but perhaps it led to some people staying put when they might have otherwise taken off, even if only after three or more hours on the tarmac. It will be very interesting to see February’s numbers, as the weather was just as bad during the first few weeks of the month.

Readers, what do you make of the airline’s performance in February? Is the tarmac delay rule helping or hindering operations?

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