Remember last year’s flight-delay horror stories about passengers kept waiting for agonizing hours on the runway before takeoff? Well, get ready for a new kind of airport nightmare: increased flight cancellations.
That’s right: according to a monthlong survey completed in May by the Department of Transportation (DOT), the number of canceled flights in the U.S. has jumped 40 percent in just the past year. A total of 6,716 scheduled flights were canceled this May, compared to just 4,792 last year.
Why the radical increase in cancellations? Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare-search site FareCompare.com, has a simple explanation: airlines’ fear of DOT fines.
“May was the first month of the new three-hour tarmac rule, where airlines face multimillion-dollar fines if they don’t head back to the gate at about the 2 1/2-hour mark,” Seaney says. These new rules, he explains, allow airlines to be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if a delayed flight doesn’t return to a terminal within three hours—which could mean several million dollars in fines for a single delayed flight. Faced with those risks, Seaney says, many carriers are going the less expensive route: canceling a flight completely when delays are imminent.
And while it’s great that there’s less chance now of being held a virtual prisoner on the tarmac, passengers now may be just as likely to spend hours—or days—in the airport terminal waiting for another flight. Many carriers are trying to cut costs nowadays by running fewer flights and jamming every plane to capacity; most no longer offer hotel vouchers for passengers who are stranded by cancellations.
So what can you do to try to avoid canceled flights and the myriad troubles they cause? For starters, check out our slideshow, which ranks the worst offenders—and the highest achievers—in the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report from May 2010.
You can also scan the web for updates on cancellations on sites like flightstats.com and flightaware.com. You may even find useful info on airlines’ own websites, says Seaney, at least in the near future; another recently adopted DOT rule requires that airlines disclose their on-time and average cancellations online.