Monday, December 29, 2008

8,800 -- Count 'Em -- 8,800 Flight Cancellations Since Dec. 19

By the numbers, here is why the holiday travel season has been such a nightmare in the air:

There were nearly 8,800 flight cancellations at major U.S. airports between Dec. 19 and yesterday, Dec. 28, according to

Bad weather, of course, was the main culprit. But even though air travel is off in sheer numbers this holiday season, airlines have removed so many seats from the system that there is absolutely no slack. Crews and aircraft have been chronically out of place as weather stacks up delays, and preemptive cancellations have been the norm on the worst-weather days.

And every canceled flight means that many more passengers are stuck at the airport, hoping to find space available on another flight (difficult to do, since a shrunken system means most planes are already full, even though demand is down.)

So far (ain't over yet, sorry to say), the worst day for cancellations, according to, was Dec. 19, when 2,175 flights were scrubbed. Two days later, more than 1750 flights never took off.

And on-time arrivals also were abysmal. On six of the busiest travel days in the 10-day holiday period so far, fewer than half of the scheduled flights arrived on time. And excessively delayed flights -- those arriving late 45 minutes or or more -- exceeded 20 percent on most of the 10 days.

Portland and Seattle, clobbered by snow and ice, fared the worst starting on Dec.20. Both Chicago airports were snarled the day after Christmas. On the 27th, delays and cancellations rippled throughout most of the air-travel system, especially affecting Dallas, Atlanta and, again, O'Hare.

Local media reflexively send someone out to the regional airport to remark on the numbers of people stranded and take pictures, but so far, no one has had a look at the big picture: Once again, our vital national air travel system has teetered and tottered and caused social disruptions. It won't be the last time.


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