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Mass Cancellations: The New Norm in Bad Weather

With three big storms this winter—and another maybe on the way, as I write this—the airlines have had more experience than anybody needed in how to cope with predicted bad weather. And they’ve all apparently decided what to do: “Slash the Schedules” is the clear winner. A reader wanted our take on the future:

“Will airlines regularly resort to wholesale flight cancellations any time they think they’ll face bad weather in a large area?”

The short answer is, “Yes; massive cancellation seems to be the new norm.” Three times this winter, airlines “proactively” canceled flights in and out of areas expected to be hit, well in advance of the actual arrival of three major storm systems. And rather than cancel the old way—piecemeal, hour by hour as conditions worsen or abate—the pattern now is to slash complete schedules. The result: Thousands of individual flight cancellations throughout the Northeast. Whether the next bad storm will impact the Northeast or somewhere else, widespread lousy weather is likely to key a similar reaction anywhere.

Avoid Tarmac Delays at All Costs

Why the big switch from hour-by-hour to wholesale cancellations? My guess is that, as many of us predicted, the airlines are making sure they will not inflict any extended tarmac delays on their passengers. Even though the new—and draconian—federal fines for long delays haven’t gone into effect yet, the airlines don’t want a repeat of the horrible press even just one such delay generates. Instead of trying to keep at least some of their trips flying, they’ve elected to shut down the impacted areas completely for a day or two until the weather clears.

Getting the Word Out

By now, almost all the domestic lines automatically issue bulletins, several days in advance, about which flights they’re cancelling and what you can do to rebook. The general offer: If you have a reservation on a flight scheduled for cancellation, all important domestic airlines allow you to rebook on a flight or a round-trip expected to operate after the storm ended, with no additional fare collection, no rebooking fee, and no minimum advance-purchase period, subject only to seat availability.

However, “windows” for you to begin your replacement trip vary quite a bit, from as few as two days after expected clearing on Delta and JetBlue to as much as six to eight days on American, Frontier, and US Airways. Continental is by far the most generous, allowing you to substitute travel for the full duration of your ticket’s validity, typically a year. Some lines automatically rebook at least some of you.

In addition, most airlines allow you to change your origin airport, departure airport, or both, within the specified date limits, with no change fee, but you have to pay whatever fare difference may apply. Alternatively, all lines offer you a complete refund or the opportunity to apply what you paid for a future trip at any time, subject to whatever fare adjustment might be required.

Southwest and United don’t post specifics, preferring instead to display just a general “call us” notice on their websites. United, however, mentioned that it might already have rebooked you automatically, again advising you to check your email or check your itinerary record online—a good idea on any airline.

Potential problems: The biggest problem in rebooking within the short allowable window is finding the seats you need. At this point, the airlines are silent about how they will handle you if you can’t find a substitute seat—specifically, whether you can rebook on the first available flight after the window closes without penalty, or if you’ll have to pay the exchange penalty. Also, if the airline rebooks you, the new schedule may be unsuitable and you may have trouble fixing it. A related minor issue is whether, in order to comply with the window, you might have to accept a bad connection or even an overnight red-eye, if that’s the only itinerary available.

If You’ve Already Started Your Trip

In general, the same rules apply, except that some lines impose a slightly shorter window for no-fee rebooking. And you’ll certainly face the same problems with rebooking.

These general rules apply to tickets sold at advertised prices through the airlines directly or through agencies. Discount (consolidator) tickets or tickets that are part of a tour operator’s or cruise line’s inclusive package may provide fewer alternatives; check with your airline if you have such a discount ticket.

Frequent Flyers

If you’re reserved on a cancelled flight while traveling on a frequent flyer award, you can redeposit your miles with no charge. The policy on rebooking, however, seems to be “lots of luck,” although your ability to find a substitute itinerary will undoubtedly depend on your frequent silyer status.

Rebooking Problems? Nobody Knows Yet

Those of us who were less than totally enthusiastic about the new “passengers bill of rights” tarmac delay provisions feared wholesale cancellations as the most serious unintended consequence. We worried that many travelers would have to wait a long time to find replacement seats.

So far, after three big storms, we don’t have any answers. Although the press was full of information about which airports have been affected and the numbers of flight cancellations, I’ve seen nothing about how much difficulty cancelled travelers have encountered trying to rebook their trips within the relatively short travel windows allowed.

For the Future

Given the impending severity of delay penalties, you can probably count on wholesale cancellations as the standard practice in advance of future major storms anywhere in the country, at any time. Be prepared.

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