Airport Confidential: Inside the Strange World of Airline Cancellations

These are the men and women who decide if your flight takes off on time or leaves you stranded

Photograph by Brent Humphreys for TIME

Now is the winter of our disconnects. And cancellations. And getting stuck in faraway places with no fast way home. A single snowy week in February saw more than 14,000 flights canceled, among the nearly 79,000 erased by a series of winter storms that are partly the product of a weather phenomenon called the polar vortex. An additional 290,000 have been delayed, according to flight-tracking website Flightaware.

But the weather alone does not explain why on any given day, tens of thousands of passengers may find themselves stranded and scrambling to make their way home. The cancellation crisis also reflects how drastically the airline business has changed in the past decade. After 9/11, after the great Recession, after bankruptcies and consolidations, the airlines have bounced back, stronger than ever but also more disciplined. Serial mergers have left Americans with just three legacy carriers, which means redundant or unprofitable flights are scrapped and planes are more crowded. Tight schedules and turnarounds mean a thunderstorm blowing through Newark, N.J., can radiate cancellations across the country, leaving customers stranded when other planes are too full to accommodate them. And new government regulations designed to prevent passengers from being held captive on the tarmac carry such hefty fines that airlines are more likely than ever before to cancel delayed flights. But who, amid the enraged tweets and forlorn instagrams, actually decides which flights will live or die?

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