By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
The storms and bitter cold that have pounded the U.S. and led to the delay or cancellation of thousands of flights this year have taken a financial toll not only on those in the business of flying but also on those dependent on a plane ride to get them to the next business meeting.
Last month, 49,000 flights were canceled by U.S. carriers, more than four times the number canceled in January 2013, says masFlight, a data and software firm that focuses on air travel. Another 300,000 failed to take off on time, according to masFlight. Those scuttled and delayed flights disrupted the travel plans of roughly 30 million fliers and cost them over $2.5 billion in lost work time and out-of-pocket costs for everything from meals to an extra night's hotel stay, according to masFlight's estimates.
"It's one for the record books,'' masFlight's CEO Josh Marks says of January's massive number of disrupted flights. "Virtually every major hub from (the) eastern and central United States, with the exception of Miami, was impacted by the weather and caused a systemic impact we haven't seen before.''
Airlines took a financial hit of $75 million to $150 million in January, as they de-iced frosty equipment and moved flight crews into place, among other expenses. And now February is off to a rough start, with thousands of flights already canceled in the face of back-to-back storms. Wednesday marked the third day in a row in which at least 1,600 flights were canceled at U.S. airports. Airports in the Northeast have suffered the bulk of cancellations, but the problem spread to airports as far away as Kansas.
Although corporate trekkers aren't the only ones inconvenienced by a scuttled flight, a delayed business trip can spark a ripple effect of canceled meetings, missed deadlines and potentially dashed opportunities, some experts say.
"What business travelers are weathering this winter is becoming more burdensome,'' says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition. "With more major storms on the horizon, diminished productivity could quickly turn into lost business traction and momentum going into a new year. ... That's what could set 2014 apart from many past winters."
The client waiting for a delayed business traveler to arrive can also lose out, Mitchell adds. For instance, if a consultant has difficulty flying in to help on a project with a tight deadline, "the entire schedule and deadlines could be undermined,'' Mitchell says.
Tina Werderman, who provides on-site training, says that she and several of her co-workers found themselves grounded by last month's bad weather. As a result, a couple of conference programs they were to participate in had to be called off.
"I couldn't reach mine in New Orleans, but luckily another trainer could, so we had to double the group until I arrived,'' says Werderman, a member of USA TODAY's panel of Road Warriors who lives in Richfield, Wis.
Road warrior Jon Petz, a professional speaker and entertainer, booked a backup flight in January to make sure he made it from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to an engagement in Chicago. But even that wasn't enough to help him during the brutal cold snap, caused by the polar vortex, which crippled air travel.
Petz's backup flight was rescheduled twice before it was scrapped two hours before takeoff. Petz finally went to the Southwest counter, where he bought a ticket and boarded a flight to Chicago's Midway Airport. It cost him another $224. But it "saved the gig (and) saved the paycheck,'' he says.
Weather-related flight delays can also wreak havoc with large off-site meetings which, if they're canceled because attendees can't get there, could lead to losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Robert Lipman, executive vice president of Summit Management Services, which focuses on meetings for the pharmaceutical research industry.
"It's bad enough to reschedule a business trip for one person, but when planning for large groups, rescheduling is not an option,'' says Lipman, who urges his clients to host their winter meetings in milder climates like California or Arizona.
Victoria Day, spokeswoman for the U.S. industry trade group Airlines for America, said in an e-mail that "airlines are adept at managing their businesses through a challenging environment, and these extended weather events are a clear reminder of the industry's operational and financial vulnerability to events outside its control."
Marks, of masFlight, says that it's not just bad weather that has triggered this year's disruptions. New federal regulations that fine airlines for lengthy tarmac delays and require pilots to get more rest are also boosting the number of canceled flights, he says.
Carriers will need to hire more pilots and tap into technology to make sure there are enough people to fly the planes, he says. "While it's unlikely we will see or should see wholesale changes in new duty time rules, we can introduce more flexibility under certain conditions.''
Contributing: Ben Mutzabaugh