This Is Why Flights Get Canceled for Weather Even When It's Nice Outside

Clear skies and a delayed flight? It's not a conspiracy.

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If you've ever stood in a crowded airport and watched as dozens of flights on the board flicker from "On Time" to "Canceled," you know it feels slightly apocalyptic.

Often, bad weather gets blamed for mass cancellations. And when you can see dark storm clouds churning or puffs of snow swirling, that makes perfect sense. Other times, when you look outside and see sunny skies and know your destination has pleasant weather, too, you might be wondering what gives. It isn't some grand conspiracy, and the weather isn't a scapegoat for other issues.

The Points Guy spoke to industry experts to determine why your flight to Houston out of New York might get canceled, even though the bad weather is in Atlanta. "If you have nowhere to send airplanes, you have to stop the airplanes from taking off," Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, told TPG. "If you don't have airplanes in the right place, you don't have crews in the right place," he said.

Flight schedules are essentially a very complex Jenga structure, and if one piece falls, say a significant hub like Atlanta or New York has delays due to inclement weather, the entire thing can crumble. Flight crews, especially pilots, are only allowed to fly for a certain number of consecutive hours before taking a mandatory break for safety reasons, which federal and workplace policies reinforce.

So, if a pilot on a flight out of one location is experiencing a significant delay, such as that time sitting on the tarmac, which still factors into their consecutive hours, or if they land at the next destination, with a flight to a third destination scheduled, but they will exceed their flying hours by the completion of that last flight, they won't be able to fly. This means the flight to the third destination would have to be canceled if there isn't another pilot to fly there. And these days, there aren't a lot of spare pilots available. 

With a better understanding of this matrix of schedules, it is more understandable how a storm in Toronto could end up canceling your flight out of Philadelphia. And as experts have warned, this summer will be especially precarious, with one even describing it as likely to be [a] "chaotic" season for traveling due to other issues, such as staffing shortages and the surge in demand for air travel, which can compound the scheduling issues.

Some airlines have taken a proactive approach by canceling routes now, but with the unpredictability of the weather, it is a bit like using a Magic 8 Ball to make major decisions. There's no guaranteed outcome.

You know what they say. We can't control things that are out of our control. We can only control our reactions to things that are out of our control. "There's really not much you can do except be the best-informed traveler you've ever been," Mann added.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.