The skies above Austin, Texas, were partly cloudy with temperatures in the high 60s and yet Austin-Bergstrom International Airport reported delays last weekend because of snow and ice.
The waits, as it turned out, were actually fallout from the snowstorm that had enveloped much of the East Coast, delaying and canceling flights at some of the busiest airports in the nation.
Last weekend's snowstorms demonstrated how snafus in one or more of the nation's largest airports can trigger a ripple effect throughout the nation's air transportation system.
"Whenever weather gets bad in any part of the system, what that means is it delays the entire system," said Robert Ditchey, an aviation consultant and co-founder of America West Airlines.
The problem has been aggravated in the last few years as recession-battered airlines cut back flight crews and terminal staff and adopt tighter flight schedules, leaving less time and fewer workers to respond to weather, mechanical or security problems, airline consultants and aviation experts said.
When an airport operates near or above capacity "any disturbance has a magnified effect," said David White, a spokesman for Conducive Technology Corp., a Portland, Ore., company whose FlightStats service tracks and reports airline delays.
Weather problems and a systemwide domino effect are reflected in statistics.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, only 5.8% of the total delay time of all flights from June 2003 to October 2009 was the result of "extreme weather." This category is defined as weather conditions that prevent a pilot from taking off or landing on schedule.
During that same period, the greatest cause of flight delays -- nearly 36% -- was attributed to a category called "aircraft arriving late," which the bureau defines as a plane that reaches the gate behind schedule, thus delaying subsequent flights. The nation's airlines are not required to report what causes such late arrivals, but federal officials assume that weather is the most common reason.
Another major cause of airline delays -- about 31% -- is labeled as "national aviation system delay." This category includes a broad set of factors such as heavy traffic volume and closed runways. But within those factors, nearly 75% of such delays are caused, again, by weather problems elsewhere in the aviation system.
All told, about 70% of airline delays are related to weather, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rules on delays may cost airlines
The rules federal regulators announced this week that will impose fines on airlines that strand passengers on a tarmac without food, water or a chance to disembark don't take effect until April.
That's good news for the airlines because the delays caused by last weekend's winter storm could have cost the carriers a bundle.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans Monday to fine airlines as much as $27,500 per passenger when travelers are stranded on the tarmac for more than two hours without access to food, water and a working bathroom. If a flight has not lifted off the ground after three hours, the airlines must give passengers the option to leave the plane, according to the new rules.
From Dec. 17 to 20, when the storm first hit the East Coast, as many as 68 flights would have violated the three-hour limit, according to FlightStats.
The firm counted 46 flights that waited on the tarmac for more than three hours after pulling away from a gate and 22 flights that waited on the tarmac more than three hours after landing, FlightStats said. A delayed plane carrying 200 people, for example, would cost an airline as much as $5.5 million in fines.
The snowstorm struck particularly hard at Philadelphia International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. During that weekend, each airport reported five flights that were delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours, the greatest number of lengthy delays of any airport.
Fees to change flights waived
If you are among the thousands of passengers scheduled to fly into one of the snowbound cities this weekend, several airlines have offered to waive the fees to change your flight plans.
United Airlines urged travelers who plan to fly to the mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest regions this weekend to consider re-booking to another time because the change fees would be waived. Flights canceled because of bad weather are eligible for a full refund.
Delta Air Lines, the world's largest carrier, also announced that passengers booked to, through or from airports in several storm-buried states through Sunday could make a one-time change without being charged.
Check with the airlines for details on the fee waivers.