It’s sometimes unbelievable that airports keep traffic flowing on their runways when winter weather hits. Major hubs have armies of specialized plows and salt trucks to keep the tarmac free of ice and snow. Thanks to deicing chemicals and equipment, extreme cold isn't an issue either.
Even with these tools in their arsenals, airports can’t completely avoid delays and cancelations. Blizzards, intense snowfall and ice storms can cause clogged airside terminals and, occasionally, force an airport to shut down altogether. Even though not all airports are affected by bad weather, there is often a trickle-down effect. If a major hub in a cold weather city starts experiencing delays, those air traffic delays can affect airports around the country, even those in warm-weather states like Florida.
So which airports are best avoided when the snow starts flying?
Not surprisingly, some of the worst airports for wintertime flying are located in snowy climes. More than 40 percent of the flights out of Chicago O’Hare (right) are delayed during the winter. Denver International and Newark, meanwhile, see about one in three flights delayed during the coldest season.
In winter 2014, there was a rather surprising entrant on the most-delayed list. Fort Lauderdale International Airport saw 38 percent of its flights delayed despite not getting a single snowflake. Tampa Bay, Orlando and Fort Myers all topped 30 percent on the same survey.
Problems in warm weather destinations are partially caused by an increase in traffic during the winter months as snowbirds flee to the South en masse. Also, poor weather at other destinations around the country can create a kind of "traffic jam in the sky" as air traffic controllers struggle to find takeoff and landing slots for delayed planes. This often forces on-time planes to alter their schedules.
Not all snowy-climate airports suffer from wintertime woes. Some are able to handle the season better than others. In Detroit, Boston and Minneapolis, all known for their harsh winters, only one in four flights are delayed. This has a lot to do with the general traffic flow that these airports experience, though some credit should also be given to their winter weather preparedness.
If you want to avoid delays altogether during the wintertime, fly to Honolulu. Hawaii’s main airport only has 16 percent of its flights delayed. That is a stellar statistic for any time of year.
For most people, though, flying is a part of life, and avoiding oft-delayed airports is simply not possible. Even the most Zen traveler gets frustrated when confronted with a delay or a cancelation, but not everyone is sure what they need to do when their flight gets iced.
The airlines' responsibilities
Get ready to settle in if your flight is delayed or canceled. (Photo: mimagephotography/Shutterstock)
On domestic flights, U.S. airlines are not required to provide compensation (such as food vouchers or hotel rooms) for delayed or stranded passengers. Some airlines will put stranded fliers up in a hotel or provide meal vouchers even though they are not required to do so by law. You can read the fine print of your ticket and see what your airline’s policy is.
U.S. legacy carriers (Delta, America, United) are generally better at making people comfortable during a delay.
In Europe, it’s a different story. Airlines are required to provide hotels and food for passengers who are delayed for a long period of time.
If you want to be fully prepared, carry a copy of the fine print that came along with your ticket so that you can show the ticket agent or gate attendant what the company promised to do. More often than not, however, anything that’s written in these agreements is followed by the phrase “subject to change." So it’s really up to the discretion of the airline’s onsite employees to decide if and what to give delayed or stranded passengers.
Even if they balk at paying for your sandwich while you’re delayed, airlines are required to get you where you need to go. By law, all carriers have to fly passengers from a canceled flight on the next available flight, even if that flight is on a competing airline.
Unfortunately, “any available flight” rule does not apply if the cancelation is caused by weather. The airline still has to move the passengers to their destination, but they can do so when flights become available on their own planes.
Be proactive in winter
You may want to try calling the airline if your flight is delayed or canceled. (Photo: KieferPix /Shutterstock)
If you experience a major delay or cancelation, it pays to be proactive. Everyone who had tickets on your flight is also going to be scrambling to get on another plane. You can speak to a ticketing agent directly at the airport, but you can also use your phone to contact the airline. Perhaps standing in line will be faster or maybe waiting on hold will be more expedient. If you try both, you will be certain that you will get your ticket changed as soon as possible.
And what about avoiding delays by traveling at a certain time of day? Bad weather can pop up at any time. In general, though, the later in the day you fly, the more likely your flight will be affected. Even if the snow has passed, the schedule could be backed up for the remainder of the day. At least with early flights — those that take off before 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. — you’ll be first in line once the runways are ready.
You can apply the early-morning rule to flying at any time of year, especially at ultra-busy airports like O’Hare, Hartsfield-Jackson (Atlanta), JFK (New York), San Francisco and LAX (Los Angeles).
If you fly often during the winter, you will eventually experience a delay or cancelation. Being proactive in your pursuit of an alternative flight (or some consolation freebies) will get you on your way as soon as possible. And it will also give you something to do besides sitting at the gate feeling sorry for yourself.
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