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Why most recent airline policies don't help when storms mess with passengers

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Cold weather has forced thousands of flights to be cancelled or delayed across the country.AP

JetBlue made a rather audacious decision Monday when faced with thousands of delayed and canceled flights. The executives simply hit the re-set button that evening and canceled all flights in and out of the New York area and Boston and began again on Tuesday.

This was a smart move by JetBlue. Normally, it takes about three days to unwind from a typical Nor'easter, but this particular storm has been rolling in waves causing all sorts of havoc--with aircraft, pilots and flight attendants ending up out of position and in sometimes remote locations. A re-start allowed the airline time to get all their resources in the proper spot to pick up the slack

As painful as it may seem for passengers, it's better to have a flight canceled ahead of time than to spend hours at the airport with limited hopes of getting anywhere. On the other hand, passengers may now spend hours on the phone trying to get where they need to go. 

Recent trends and changes in the way airlines do business haven't helped, which sometimes make bad situations like big storms seem even uglier. 

Here are the big three:

Capacity cutting: It used to be that when storms hit, there were always empty middle seats on other flights that you could snag to get you on your way again. Those of you who can remember back to the days before deregulation can recall having entire rows to yourself! No more. Today's business model is to fill every seat on every single plane and they've been largely successful.  So when delays or cancelations happen, there's no place to put all the inconvenienced travelers. And so, they wait.

Lack of the human touch: When was the last time you called your airline and got connected right away? It's probably been a while and that's because there are fewer humans to answer the phone. In fact, the airlines actively discourage calls by charging you for them (fees run as high as $25 to make a reservation by phone). Instead, we have an array of airport kiosks disgorging everything from boarding passes to bag tags. And let's not forget those popular website avatars like United's "Ask Alex" to deal with your most frequently asked questions. What this means is when a huge storm blows travel plans out of the water, you can sit on the phone for hours.

New pilot fatigue rules: JetBlue indicated some frustration with new government pilot rest rules that went into effect Jan. 4. As the carrier's website updates noted, "Even as airports began to reopen though, newly launched FAA regulations on pilot duty times caused delayed flights to quickly turn into canceled ones." These so-called fatigue rules don't help when massive storms hit, but wouldn't you really rather have a rested man or woman in your cockpit?

What Passengers Can Do

I'm sure most passengers have heard this before, but I'll say it again: You have to be patient. But here are a couple of things you can try instead of spending hours on the phone.

Be pro-active in making new reservations: First, grab the most tech-savvy member of your family and make them your travel-agent-of-the-day. Then, have them navigate for you: Use an airline's 24 hour hold or guarantee to make new flight reservations (on your current airline or another). If worse comes to worse, you can cancel without penalty but at least you're holding your place in line, so to speak, for a Plan B exit strategy.

Head to a less-impacted airport: Even if it's not your final destination, fly to a less storm impacted airport, where you can more easily fly home (or fly to a big hub airport and get home from there). If you can't fly, maybe you can drive or take a bus or train. Getting away from the chaotic and going-nowhere airport you're currently in can be a good solution.  

Social media: Give social media a try; follow/contact your airline on Twitter and Facebook. As we've seen in the past, many airlines respond to social media queries very quickly, although if staffing is really stressed by weather, this may not work so well.

Last resort: Stay on the phone. Keep calling. Try to jump the automated menu by saying "agent" or "customer service". And have patience.

Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site