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Reservation systems now automatically rebook passengers on new flights — though not always the flight they want — and send a notification by email, phone or text message.
Keeping planes at airports outside of the storm's path can protect equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen. It also allows airlines to let gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews stay home, too — keeping them fresh once they're needed again.
There are also financial considerations. A plane circling above an airport hoping to land, or even one waiting on a taxiway, burns a lot of fuel. A decade ago, when jet fuel was $1.15 a gallon, that might not have been a major concern. Today, airlines are paying $3.03 a gallon and fuel has become their largest single cost, eclipsing salaries.
Flying during a winter storm also requires deicing, a process that takes time and costs the airlines money.
The airlines do lose money by canceling flights when travelers like Cummings demand refunds. United recently said that early January storms cost it $80 million in lost revenue.
But the sting isn't as bad as you might think.
Jim Corridore, an airline analyst with S&P Capital IQ, notes that the United also saved millions in fuel and salaries by not having to fly the canceled flights. And some level of storm-related expenses is already built into airline budgets.
"We're not going to have this type of winter, every winter," Corridore says.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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