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What You Can Do to Make Travel Better in a Winter Storm

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SNOW STORMIf you live in Washington, DC, New York, New England, or even Atlanta, you know it’s been a bad year for winter storms. But you don’t have to live in those regions or cities to be directly affected by the weather. It may seem like every other week, there is a new storm system brewing. With it comes delayed flights, cancelations, and a U.S. aviation system that is practically locked down.

Today is no different. In the last two days, more than 6,000 flights have been canceled and another 16,000 delayed, according to FlightStats.

In fact, flight cancelation numbers have reached record highs. In January, 51,672 flights were canceled and another 163, 355 flights were delayed. In comparison, January 2013 only had 7,561 flights canceled, per the U.S. DOT. This year’s cancelations are more than four times the previous two Januarys combined.

In fact, the U.S. has never experienced this level of flight cancelations. You have to go back 14 to 18 years to find numbers that even come close. The blizzard of 1996 resulted in 29,595 cancelations and 246,723 delays in one month. Back in December 2000, 28,600 flight were canceled, with 281,544 delays.

Let’s take a moment to understand why snow causes such a big disruption. Most flights can operate in wind and snow.

It’s the infrastructure on the ground that’s the problem—namely the airports. It’s not the snow, but the accumulation of it. Snow decreases visibility for takeoffs and landings, but many planes are equipped with category three systems, which allows for a hands-off landing in virtually zero visibility. The issue is the condition of the runway, and snow drifts and ice are the culprits. Can ground crews at the airport get ahead of the storm? This past week, they lost that battle.

When airport ground crews lose that battle, the airports and the airlines (and you) lose the war. Even in good weather, airlines are flying at about an 86 percent load factor. (Translation: they’re full). If you miss your flight—in good weather, or a flight cancels because of a mechanical issue—it becomes increasingly difficult to find a seat because all the other flights are already full. Compound that with weather and multiple delays and cancelations, and the wait for another seat becomes almost endless.

What some airlines are doing is a new kind of preemptive triage. If the airline meteorologists see a major storm coming, they don’t keep to the regular schedule, or even an abbreviated one. If the storm is that severe, they tend to cancel all their flight banks at the same time. This is for good reason: When you cancel a flight outside its crew base, you take a plane out of its cycle and its crew out of sequence.

For every 12 hours you’re not operating, it takes about 36 hours to get back on track with the right crews assigned to the right aircraft, and with the crews having enough hours to be legal to work those flights.

So, the bottom line this week is….take a deep breath, read a book, and then rebook your canceled flights for a week from now. But, if you can’t do that, most airlines have a flight cancelation policy that allows you to get a 100 percent refund on your fare, even if the ticket was listed as nonrefundable.

It’s two weeks into February so we are far from done with winter storm season, but there are a few things you can do to make travel better in the chaos of a winter storm:

If your flight is canceled, follow these five steps. Remember, there is high demand for airport hotels. Act fast to book some of your best options.