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Many Flights Canceled, But Fewer Fliers Stranded On Tarmac

Passengers wait in line at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday. A major snowstorm has delayed flights from Atlanta to New York.

Would-be air travelers sitting at home may be frustrated about their canceled plans. But most likely, they are happier than they would have been had they gotten trapped on an icy tarmac.

And that used to happen many hundreds of times a year before the Department of Transportation stepped in to reduce the frequency of passenger incarcerations.

DOT was responding to a fliers' revolt that kicked into high gear back on Valentine's Day 2007. That's when snow and ice led to JetBlue Airways' decision to strand hundreds of passengers on planes on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for up to 10 1/2 hours.

The infamous incident — along with many similar ones involving passengers trapped amid overflowing toilets and screaming babies — led DOT to act. In December 2009, the deparment instituted a landmark rule, setting a three-hour limit on such tarmac delays. Violators would get hit with fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

The number of stranded flights plummeted because the new rule made it an easier financial decision for airlines to cancel flights. In the first year it took effect, airlines reported 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours, compared with 693 tarmac delays in the previous year.

Daniel Baker, CEO of the air-travel tracking website FlightAware.com, said this week's massive snowstorm caused major airports from Atlanta to New York to close runways, and airlines had to cancel more than 6,500 flights just Thursday.

"Atlanta saw 70 percent of flights cancelled," he said. That had "a really huge impact, not just on folks who were traveling to and from Atlanta, but people traveling through Atlanta to go to other cities."

Still, Baker said it's easier on passengers to have flights canceled these days because smartphones and computers can make it so much easier to adjust and make new travel plans.

"The travelers can go online and re-accommodate themselves on the airline web site, which is a huge improvement for the consumer experience," Baker said.

NPR's Chris Arnold reported on the cancellations for All Things Considered. Listen to his report:

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Many Flights Canceled, But Fewer Fliers Stranded On Tarmac

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