Winter weather compounds air travel problems

A flight shows cancelled on the departures board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Arlington, Va.  Winter weather and crew members infected with COVID-19 have forced airlines to spike thousands of U.S. flights over the past weeks.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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A flight shows cancelled on the departures board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Arlington, Va. Winter weather and crew members infected with COVID-19 have forced airlines to spike thousands of U.S. flights over the past weeks. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Credit: Alex Brandon

Credit: Alex Brandon

Airlines trying to catch up from holidays

The number of flight cancellations caused by staff shortages should soon subside, but wintry weather is leading to new problems for flyers around the country.

Pilots and crews were in short supply at the end of December, in part because many had reached the maximum number of hours that federal regulations allowed them to fly, said Kathleen Bangs, spokeswoman of FlightAware, an app that tracks flights, cancellations and delays. A lot of employees had worked overtime or filled in for coworkers out because of the coronavirus.

Though an ultra-contagious variant of the virus is still spreading, more workers should be available, Bang said.

“The good news for travelers is the airline flight crews begin their flight duty months all over again on the first of the month,” she said. And travel slows in January.

Still, airlines were scrambling to avoid cancellations and delays Monday.

According to FlightAware, 4,469 U.S. flights scheduled for Monday had been canceled by mid-afternoon. Of those, 77 were out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The airport averaged 10 cancellations a day in 2021. An airport spokeswoman said an estimated 223,000 passengers traveled through Hartsfield-Jackson Monday.

Airports in the Washington, D.C., and New York area accounted for many cancellations — roughly 500 —because of wintry weather.

Southwest reported it had canceled 600 of its 3,600 Monday flights because of bad weather. Delta canceled 128, according to FlightAware.

Consumer advocate Clark Howard said travelers should try to book only nonstop flights to cut down on the chance of problems. Booking a flight that’s scheduled to leave early gives travelers more of a chance to get another flight if something goes wrong. He advised people to check their flight status regularly, even as they are headed to the airport and to download and use the airline’s app to make a quick rebooking if the flight gets canceled.

“If you go stand in line or call, every possible seat will be booked before you get to the front of that line,” Howard said.

He also recommends buying airline tickets with a credit card that comes with free flight interruption insurance.

Howard said some travelers who want to guarantee arrival are double booking on different airlines hours apart, then canceling the second flight if it’s unneeded.

Airlines frown on that practice, and some, such as American Airlines, reserve the right to cancel the flights of passengers discovered doing that, according to carrier contracts.

Bangs said travelers shouldn’t expect an airline to offer refunds for a canceled flight — they may be offered only flight credits. She said if travelers buy refundable tickets, they should state clearly either online or over the phone that they want a refund and are entitled to one. If the cancellation is caused by the weather, even passengers with nonrefundable tickets are still entitled to refunds. They may also be entitled to a refund if they experience an “egregious” delay or “significant change,” according to Department of Transportation regulations.

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