Well I guess we now have a clear answer on whether airlines will preemptively cancel large numbers of flights to avoid new penalties for stranding passengers on planes awaiting takeoff as the weather forecast turns bad.
You betcha they will. Look at what's happened in Atlanta.
At the Atlanta airport today, half of the 2,100 scheduled departures and arrivals have been canceled. Ignore current media reports saying that "hundreds" of flights have been canceled at Atlanta. The number is over 1,000.
And the weather isn't even expected to turn bad there till tonight. After sunset, it will be icy, but not very snowy, according to this update in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this morning: "Snow accumulations up to an inch may stick in Atlanta ..." [As of Saturday mid-afternoon, incidentally, the same Atlanta Journal-Constitution is evidently unaware of the rather alarming number of preemptive cancellations at the local airport, and instead dishes up a figure from yesterday. What, you want local reporting on a holiday?]
Incidentally, Delta Air Lines accounts for the vast majority of the cancellations today in Atlanta, its main hub. Delta itself scrubbed about 650 of its flights (including 328 of its 495 scheduled departures), and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the regional carrier that operates most of the Delta Connection flights out of Atlanta, canceled 252 departures and arrivals. [My information comes from the always-invaluable Web site FlightStats.com.]
In April, new federal rules took effect to address the problem of airlines stranding passengers for long periods of time on idled planes on runways and aprons waiting to take off (or diverted from elsewhere) in bad weather. The rules set a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger for airlines that strand passengers without a very defensible reason for over three hours.
Problem solved. Tarmac delays exceeding three hours, which once numbered in the hundreds per month, have now just about disappeared. Problem introduced: Airlines have hair-triggers on the cancellation gun when even the threat of bad weather appears.
Meanwhile, a big storm is in fact looming for the East Coast. Some media weather reporters are dizzy with the usual hysteria, tossing out words like "monster storm" and "nightmare." (That's usin' them action words, AccuWeather!) But yep, it sure does look like it's gonna snow and blow on the eastern seaboard tomorrow. Here's a CNN report.
If you're flying, check ahead and be prepared for flight cancellations from Philly to Boston. Right now, flight cancellations are minimal at the airports on the Washington-to-Boston seaboard, but that could change in a hurry later today. We'll see if the Delta-Atlanta precedent is followed elsewhere.