This winter was brutal on airline passengers - Tucson News Now

This winter was brutal on airline passengers

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now/AP) -

During the first three months of this year, U.S. airlines canceled 4.6 percent of flights. The announcement means this winter was the worst for fliers in the last 20 years, according to the government data.

Mother Nature is mostly to blame, with a relentless wave of snow and ice storms paralyzing airline traffic across the U.S. The deep freeze also added in the number of cancellations.

But airlines are also quicker to cancel flights these days, sometimes a day in advance of a storm. The shift in strategy came in response to new government regulations, improvements to overall operations and because canceling quickly reduces expenses.

In May 2010, a new DOT rule took effect prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more. So, airlines now choose to cancel blocks of flights to avoid potential fines of up to $27,500 per passenger or $4.1 million for a typical plane holding 150 fliers.

Making things worse for travelers, airlines have been cutting unprofitable flights and packing more passengers into planes.

In March, JetBlue had the highest cancellation rate among the bigger airlines - two percent of flights. That was closely followed by the merged American Airlines and US Airways, canceling 1.9 percent. Southwest Airlines and United Airlines both canceled 1.1 percent and Delta Air Lines 0.2 percent.

Some of the highest flight cancellation numbers came from smaller regional airlines that are operated by other companies on behalf of the major airlines.  ExpressJet, which flies regional planes for American, Delta and United, scrapped 5.1 percent of its March flights. American Eagle canceled 4.1 percent of its flights and SkyWest, another subcontractor, nixed 2.3 percent of its scheduled flights.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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