For any traveler who has absolutely had to get somewhere this winter, the frigid weather has been taking a toll. There is more to come; the National Weather Service has warned of more snow and ice this week for the South and Northeast.
Last month, nearly 40,000 flights were canceled in the United States, about four times the previous two January totals, according to flight-tracking company FlightAware.
January’s number is almost double the next highest monthly total since the website adopted its current methods in January 2012.
Republic Airways, a regional carrier, reported last week it completed only 85 percent of its scheduled flights in January, compared with 96 percent a year earlier. And other regional carriers, which together with Republic make up nearly half the nation’s flights, most likely have had similar numbers, said industry consultant Robert Mann.
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“I think we’ve seen in the month of January alone a series of storms that have literally impacted every one of the major hub cities,” Mann said. “When you shut these airports down, you literally stop commerce.”
He said the last time he remembered a winter this bad was in the mid-1990s. “I think we’re probably looking at that 20-year sort of winter,” he said.
But 20 years ago, there was more give in the system, with planes flying at lower capacity and a hub-and-spoke system not as finely tuned.
“It shows how fragile the domestic system is,” Mann said.
Mark Duell, vice president for operations at FlightAware, said maintenance schedules and crew hours added to the challenges of having planes grounded in one location when they need to be somewhere else. “Part of it is the airlines are pretty thin on spares,” he said. “There’s not a lot of excess capacity.”
With flights grounded across the country and treacherous driving conditions, a storm in Dallas can mean being stranded for two days in Nashville; ice in Atlanta can disrupt a Boston-to-Chicago trip; and snow in Washington can turn a cross-country flight into a 19-hour ordeal. A regional snowstorm can have nationwide implications.
“We had people contacting us left and right saying they couldn’t make it,” Joanna Kinsman, public-relations director for the New Media Expo, an event in Las Vegas in early January, when sharply colder weather gripped much of the U.S.
The event hosted about 2,300 attendees — nearly 20 percent fewer than anticipated.
Weather half a continent away can certainly have an effect, as Harry Balzer, a market-research analyst in Chicago, found out two weeks ago when his flight out of Boston was canceled because of severe weather in Atlanta.
“There was no weather between Chicago and Boston,” he said. “That’s the most frustrating thing.”
With these daunting odds, some travelers have had to turn to other means of transportation, like buses and trains.
For cross-country trips, though, travelers don’t have many alternate options. Christopher Noyes, a meeting planner, spent 19 hours trying to get from Washington, D.C. to Vancouver, B.C., in December, a trek that included being routed back east to Toronto after arriving in Chicago and missing his connecting flight.
When delays are measured in days rather than hours, travelers often wind up making an impromptu shopping trip.
Maura Gast, executive director of the convention and visitors bureau in Irving, Texas, was stranded in Nashville for two nights in December, so she and a colleague took a taxi to the local Target, where they bought a change of clothes and makeup, just to get through the day.
“What I had with me was office dress clothes for meetings and sales calls,” she said, “not for huddling in the airport.”