NEW YORK – Even before the snowstorm hit the Northeast, airlines were already cancelling flights.
It's a strategy that has served airlines well in recent years: Cancel flights early and keep planes and crews — and passengers — away from snowed-in airports. The idea is to avoid having crews and planes stuck in one area of the country. Airlines also face fines for leaving passengers stuck on a plane for more than three hours under a rule that went into effect in 2010.
Flight-tracking website FlightAware said airlines have canceled 5,368 flights because of the storm. Airports were beginning to reopen Saturday, and flights were expected to be back on close to normal schedules on Sunday.
The storm brought more than 2 feet of snow in many parts of New England and left more than 650,000 homes and businesses without power.
Here are some questions and answers about what the airlines have been doing:
Q: What are the airlines doing differently?
A: Just a few years ago, a powerful storm dumping 2 feet of snow on the Northeast would have brought havoc to some of the region's busiest airports. Passengers would sit on a plane for hours, hoping to take off. Families slept on the airport floor with luggage piled up around them. The only meal options came from vending machines.
Now, having learned from storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, U.S. airlines have rewritten their severe weather playbooks. They've learned to cancel flights early and keep the public away from airports, even if that means they'll have a bigger backlog to deal with once conditions improve.
Travelers can still face days of delays in getting home, but the advanced cancellations generally mean they get more notice and can wait out the storm at home or a hotel, rather than on a cot at the airport.
Q: Why is it smarter to cancel early?
A: It allows the airlines to tell gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews to stay home — keeping them fresh once they're needed again.
And by moving planes to airports outside of the storm's path, airlines can protect their equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen.
These precautions make good business sense. They also help the airlines comply with government regulations that impose steep fines for leaving passengers stuck on planes for three hours or more. And they reduce the chance of horror-story footage of stranded passengers showing up on the nightly news.
Q: When did airlines change their storm preparations?
A: Things changed about six years ago. JetBlue was late to cancel flights as a massive snowstorm hammered the East Coast on Valentine's Day weekend in 2007. Passengers were stranded on planes for hours. When the storm finally cleared, other airlines resumed flights but JetBlue's operations were still a mess.
Other airlines took note. Severe weather manuals were updated. Reservation systems were programmed to automatically rebook passengers when flights are canceled. And travelers now receive notifications by email, phone or text message.
Q.: What should passengers do?
A.: The good news is that if your flight is cancelled, the airlines will automatically rebook you on the next available flight. The bad news is that next flight could be a while if you're traveling to or from a city that is buried under a foot or more of snow.
If you're unhappy with your rebooked flight, pick up the phone and call the airline directly. Or go onto the airline's website and even consider sending a tweet.
Q.: How tough is it for the airlines to get operations back to normal?
A.: Flights won't start up immediately.
When Superstorm Sandy hit the New York area, JetBlue's Rob Maruster, the airline's chief operating officer, equated starting up the airline again to putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It's not about staffing levels, but an overall game plan that makes sense. "At a certain point, putting more hands on the table doesn't help get it solved faster," he said.
The airlines will need to ask a lot of questions before bringing in planes.
First, are the runways open?
Next, is there public transit to get workers to the airport? If not, does the airline have enough staff staying at nearby hotels that can be bused in?
Finally, the airline has to check on all the other people needed to run an airport: the Transportation Security Administration, customs officials, caters, fuel trucks and even the people who push wheelchairs through the terminal.
Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, notes that the timing of this storm does work in the airlines' favor.
"Fortunately, Saturday is the lightest travel day of the week, so airlines can use the day to restart their operations in time for the Sunday evening travel rush," Baker says.