Winter storms create record flight cancellations in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – More than 2,600 flights were cancelled Monday, as a slow moving winter storm slammed the East coast. The ripple effect left behind impacted thousands of passengers across the country, and helped push Indianapolis International Airport into the record books.

Even with blue skies overhead in Indianapolis, thousands of passengers were seeing red. Red flashing “cancelled” signs began stacking up on airport monitors early Monday morning, and that left travelers like Habte Yohannes very nervous.

“I was worried about traveling today, so I came to check in early,” he said. “Hopefully, I can [get home to Boston by tonight]. But, I’m not that confident.”

Few in Indianapolis were confined to cots or pricey out of pocket hotel rooms, and, by noon, only eight departures were cancelled, though many reflected short delays.

But, the lack of makeshift beds at the airport didn’t mean a lack of problems.

More than 50 percent of the flights that were supposed to arrive in Indianapolis Monday were either cancelled or faced delays. Those delays will likely only get worse over the coming 12-36 hours, experts said.

“It’s a ripple effect,” said Bethanne Harrison-Brown, manager of the Indianapolis-Monument Circle branch of The Travel Authority. “We may not have gotten the snow, but they did all along the East coast. The aircraft can’t get in or get out. So, the aircrafts are displaced, sometimes for several days.”

It’s a problem the industry has become all too familiar with.

An Associated Press analysis in mid-February found U.S. airlines had cancelled more than 75,000 flights since December 1st, including hundreds in Indianapolis. At least 5,000 additional U.S. flights have been cancelled since that analysis took place.

That’s the most since 1987, when the federal government first began collecting records, and passengers are taking notice.

“It’s been awful,” said John Ploch, a frequent business traveler who flew into Indianapolis from Detroit Monday morning, noting it was his first on-time arrival in weeks. “I’ve had more delayed flights this year than any other year I’ve been traveling. It’s just another added frustration, and it makes for very long days.”

For travel agents like Harrison-Brown, it’s filled the typically busy winter booking season with additional travel tribulation.

“We’ve had back to back to back events, where it takes 2-3 or even 5 business days to get everything back going, and then here comes another one right [after],” she said.

But, Mother Nature may not be solely to blame.

The price of jet fuel has more than doubled in the last decade, and with the additional precipitation this winter, many airlines are forced to spend additional unexpected funding on de-icing solution. Add to that new federal regulations on pilot staffing and mandates on time spent on the tarmac, and many airlines are left hedging their bets.

Quick cancellations cut costs.

There is one silver lining, Harrison-Brown argues.

“A lot of the airlines have put in exception policies, and do allow the majority of time one type of change, outside a certain range, if you’re going to be affected by a cancellation. But, not every policy covers every situation. That’s why we think a travel insurance policy is so critical. Where they may be in a situation where the airline didn’t cover what they’re wanting to change it to, you have travel insurance in place, and you’re able to file a claim for x,y, or z,” she said.

It’s one reason why Harrison-Brown is confident the industry will rebound quickly from a tough few months.

“It’s been a little bit frustrating, but there will be recovery. It will be a slow recovery, but it will happen,” Harrison-Brown said.

Industry analysts say despite the delays and cancellations from this record breaking winter, U.S. airlines are still on track to earn record profits this year. The International Air Transport Association projects the industry will earn $19.4 billion in 2014.

But, it’s clear both the airlines and their passengers are desperately hoping for signs of spring.

“You just have to get through it the best you can and hope it doesn’t happen again,” said Ploch. “Warmer weather can’t get here soon enough.”

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