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February 8, 2013

How airlines prepare for big storms

NEW YORK (AP) — As the Northeast braces for its largest winter storm in more than a year, airlines are already employing a strategy that has served them well in recent years: Cancel flights early and keep planes and crews — and passengers — away from snowed-in airports.

By Thursday night, up to 2 feet of snow was forecast along the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor from the New York City area to Boston and beyond. In response, airlines canceled hundreds of flights for Friday, a figure likely to eventually surpass 1,000.

That means emergency planning for Boston's Logan International Airport, the three major airports in the New York Metropolitan area and smaller airports around the region.

Here are some questions and answers about what the airlines are doing:

Q: What are the airlines doing differently?

A: Just a few years ago, a powerful storm dumping two 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 dayslong 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.

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