Weather Cancellations, Profit and the 3 Hour Rule

This winter season we’ve seen record cancellations due to major weather events and by all appearances, this isn’t over yet.  These cancellations will cost airlines their 1st quarter profitability in many cases and exacerbate the losses of other airlines as well.

One trend I’ve noticed is a number of flight crew blaming the 3 Hour Rule for creating these cancellations citing their opinion that their company won’t risk a 3 Hour Rule violation.   No doubt that at least some of these cancellations were in fact influenced by the rule. 

However, I’m not sure you can point to the 3 Hour Rule as the cause for losses.  Not yet anyway.  The weather events that have caused these massive cancellations would have no doubt caused them regardless of the rule.  It’s difficult to send an airplane out on a flight if the airport is closed due to blizzard conditions.  In other cases, while there may not have been a blizzard, there have been several airports dealing with unusual conditions (for their area) that have caused airport closing and/or reduced operations.  DFW and Dallas Love Field are two excellent examples.

I expect that sometime later this year, we’ll see airlines push for either a straight out repeal 0f the 3 Hour Rule (unlikely) or some modification for weather events (much more likely.)  I remain unsure if that would be justified because despite these huge cancellation numbers, I’m just not seeing any giant outcry over it either.  If anything, I suspect that the 3 Hour Rule is causing airlines to think earlier and be more proactive in their cancellation strategy and that is resulting in people being able to plan better and plan around these weather events. 

In addition, one winter’s weather does not make a trend.  It’s been a bad one so far and I continue to believe that we need 2 or more full year’s data to really determine the potential negative effects of the 3 Hour Rule.  And the real critical area is determining when and for what reason airlines are cancelling flights when the weather events are not so clear cut.  For instance, who is cancelling when strong winds impact runway choices at NYC airports and thereby reducing the hourly rate at which flights can land and take-off?

However the rest of this winter plays out, I expect to see the industry renew its efforts to modify the rule some time after the 1st Quarter financial results are in for our major airlines.  I do think there should be a debate on this subject and it should balance cancellations, the rule and what the passengers may be asked to put up with.  It’s quite possible that relaxing these rules to 4 hours may satisfy most parties in this fight.

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