Big Storms Mean Preemptive Cancellations

American Airlines has canceled almost 500 Thanksgiving flights.

As of yesterday, American Airlines had canceled almost 500 flights as heavy winter weather descended on its main hub at Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW). The storm is forecast to move eastward over the next few days, raising the possibility of heavy Thanksgiving weekend cancellations at such busy easterly hubs as Atlanta and Charlotte. So far, no other big airline has announced similar cancellations; what the other airlines do depends on how the storm progresses.

Massive weather cancellations aren’t limited to airports directly impacted by winter storms, either; canceled flights at any big airline’s hub mean cancellations all across their networks because planes and crews can’t get to where they’re supposed to be. All in all, bad weather around any giant line’s major hub is likely to disrupt travel system-wide for several days.

If these cancellations seem to be more than usual, there’s a reason. Many of them are preemptive, taken in advance of actual weather problems, to minimize the total disruption that results from sudden cancellations when the storm actually hits. Preemptive cancellations are encouraged in part as a response to the big fines airlines have to pay when they strand travelers in tarmac delays for more than three hours. Rather than risk problems like that during actual storms, airlines find it better to cancel flights in advance.

In general, when faced with massive cancellations, airlines allow affected travelers to rebook their trips with no change fee and—sometimes—with no increase in fare. But specifics vary, and American’s response, so far, is not generous: If you’re ticketed for trips through DFW on November 24 or 25, you can rebook for trips any time during November 23–26 without a change fee. Apparently, however, if the canceled trip is outbound on a round-trip ticket, you can’t adjust the return trip. Moreover, American says “original inventory required,” meaning that you can avoid a fare increase only when seats on alternative flights are available in your original ticket “inventory” or booking class. That’s pretty restrictive, because if you’re on a cheap ticket, cheap seats may no longer be available on flights that do operate. Also, that plus-or-minus one-day time window is very narrow. Of course, you can also cancel your trip, get a refund, and start all over at a later date. Historically, airlines have been more generous than American with rebooking options during massive weather-related cancellations. But there are no rules or requirements: Each airline decides what to do in each instance.

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By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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