February 1, 2011 / 5:06 PM / 7 years ago

U.S. airlines cancel flights as winter storm bears down

CHICAGO/ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. airlines canceled thousands of flights on Tuesday ahead of a blizzard that has promised near-record snowfall in the U.S. Plains and the central Midwest.

The storm was expected to stretch across 2,000 miles -- dumping up to 2 feet of snow in the central and upper Midwest, as well as ice and sleet in the southern Midwest.

The largest U.S. airlines -- United Continental, Delta Air Lines, AMR Corp’s American Airlines and Southwest Airlines -- had scrapped more than 4,000 flights by midday.

“We are currently at approximately 1,500 total cancellations system wide,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said. “That’s about 45 percent of our operations and it could go higher through the day.”

United Continental, formed from a merger of United and Continental airlines, had canceled 1,450 flights; Delta had canceled 625 flights and Southwest said it eliminated 700 flights through Wednesday afternoon.

“We recommend all customers check united.com before they go to the airport to check the status of their flight,” United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said.

In Dallas, icy conditions that are part of the same weather system closed Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a hub for American Airlines, briefly on Tuesday morning. The city’s Love Field Airport, which is primarily served by Southwest, was also closed while crews cleared snow and ice and was expected to reopen later in the day, assistant director Kenneth Gwyn said.

David Magana, public affairs manager at DFW Airport, said one runway was reopened at the airport on Tuesday, and ice was being cleared from six others.

Magana said Dallas-Fort Worth Airport had 300 departures canceled so far for the day; the airport normally has about 850 daily departures.

“We’ve been plowing runways and treating them,” Magana said. “Roadways around the airport are still fairly icy as well.”

Unpredictable winter weather is a yearly nuisance for airlines and can result in a hit to quarterly earnings. But early flight cancellations can help airlines avoid stranding their passengers at airports and on grounded planes.

In recent years, both JetBlue Airways and American Airlines suffered public relations nightmares when harsh weather forced last-minute cancellations and left passengers stuck at airports.

Last year, the U.S. Transportation Department approved an airline fine of up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays that exceed three hours. Passengers could be let off a plane, if they made that request.

”They’re canceling ahead of time,“ said Terry Trippler, owner of travel website Airlinerulestoknow.com. ”They can lose the revenue without going further in the hole.

“They’re getting smart. They’ve figured it out,” he said.

Airline shares were broadly higher with the Arca airline index up 1.2 percent. AMR shares were up a penny at $7.06 on the New York Stock Exchange and Delta rose 7 cents to $11.74.

United Continental shares were down 9 cents at $25.31, and Southwest was off 4 cents at $11.81.

Additional reporting by Christine Stebbins in Chicago, editing by Maureen Bavdek

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