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Originally published January 14, 2014 at 12:29 PM | Page modified January 14, 2014 at 2:00 PM

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More than 27,000 flights canceled in ‘polar vortex’

“The severe ice, snow and cold that hit much of the U.S. in early January caused massive cancellations


The New York Times

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Well, that was certainly an interesting way to usher in a new year in air travel. Many business travelers are still trying to rebook trips and rearrange schedules banged up during the chaotic weather-related disruptions in the U.S.

Here’s the grim scorecard from FlightView, a site that provides detailed flight information: During the worst of the “polar vortex” mess, the eight-day period of Jan. 2-9, airlines in the United States canceled 27,779 flights, out of a total of 243,842 scheduled departures. And of those flights that did take off, 51 percent arrived late.

All the cancellations mean that nearly a full average day’s worth of domestic and international flights disappeared from the air transportation system in the United States during that period. Most of those flights needed to be rescheduled.

To put that into perspective, consider that airplanes are full on most flights, and have been for years. United Airlines reported that an average of 88 percent of its seats were occupied in December, capping a year during which the total number of available domestic seats declined 2.1 percent. At American Airlines, that figure was 84.3 percent for all of 2013, with 0.7 percent fewer seats available; at Delta, 83.1 percent of seats were occupied, with 1.1 percent fewer domestic seats. Southwest, however, came in lower, at 80.1 percent, with 1.7 percent more seats.

Business travelers all have coping strategies, but during this mess, many encountered extraordinary hurdles as cancellations and delays caused by bad weather in some parts of the country rippled through national and international networks — even in places where the weather was fine.

No hotel vouchers

I’ve been hearing from many readers who were stuck in airports overnight as flight schedules collapsed and airline customer service lines backed up for hours. Many wondered why airlines denied them hotel vouchers, even in places where flights were canceled though the weather was good.

But U.S. airlines don’t provide hotel vouchers for flights canceled because of weather or other “acts of God.”

“When a cancellation is airline-caused — crew, mechanical, that sort of thing — we will put the customer up in a hotel. If it is not airline-caused — weather being one example, air traffic control being another — then we do not,” said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United, which had 9,285 cancellations, or 21 percent of its scheduled flights, during the period, according to FlightView.

The only airline with a higher percentage of cancellations was JetBlue, which scrubbed 22 percent of its 1,550 scheduled flights. (Incidentally, for those who might need to hunker down in an airport during future disruptions, I recommend having a look at a website, sleepinginairports.net, that evaluates airports around the world on this very subject.)

Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, advises staying put when collapse is imminent. “It’s every traveler for himself,” he said. When hideous weather and flight cancellations loom, “don’t give up your hotel room. Being stuck in the hotel, with Internet, a place to charge your phone and a restaurant, is better than taking your chances at the airport.”

For those stuck at airports, of course, the sanctuary of an airline lounge, with comfortable seating and Wi-Fi-enabled work stations, snacks, drinks and access to on-site customer service representatives, is invaluable. But even here, the year begins with some bad news. On Friday, Delta Air Lines emailed its Sky Club lounge members and other frequent-flying customers to announce “new membership options” that will allow for “more privacy and comfort” at the clubs — by raising the price while restricting some access.

Delta set a new “executive membership” level for annual membership in its Sky Club lounges for $695, which will allow members to bring in up to two guests free. For those renewing memberships at the current level, $450 a year, it will cost $29 per visit for a member to bring in a guest, rather than receiving free guest-entry as is now the case.



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