ATLANTA (

TheStreet

) -- At 8 a.m. Thursday morning,

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

made its call: Shut down Washington area operations on Friday afternoon.

With 15 to 20 inches of snowfall expected to fall in the area on Friday and Saturday, few would question the decision. But it reflects a new approach for U.S. airlines, which a decade ago had the mindset that as bad weather approached, they would try to operate up until the last minute, trying to get passengers to their destinations -- even if it was likely the effort would vastly inconvenience many of them.

"One thing we have learned regarding storms and their impact is that it makes a huge difference to passengers if we can keep them out of the travel stream, out of the long airport lines we had in the '80s and '90's," said Dave Holtz, a 31-year Delta veteran who oversees flights as director of operations control.

Now, Holtz said, the goal is to make decisions early enough that passengers have time to react. "If you are going to impact passengers, it is wise to do it early," he said. "Instead of dictating to them, and forcing choices on them, we can let them choose their options."

By midday Thursday, Delta had decided to cancel about 500 weekend flights, half of them at the three Washington area airports; 150 at the New York-area airports, where 6 inches of snow is expected, and others in the Carolinas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Washington call was relatively easy, because the airports anticipate that after about 4 p.m., plowing will be unable to keep up with the snow falling on the runways. The New York airports are expected to remain open, but with limited capacity because de-icing will slow takeoffs and, in the bad weather, arriving aircraft must be spaced further apart.

While airlines have dealt with such problems for decades, today they have both a different mindset and better tools to manage last-minute changes. Importantly, passengers are easier to reach, thanks to cell phones, the Internet, BlackBerry phones and other devices. It is no longer a matter of attempting to call every passenger, which not only requires costly extra staffing, but is also impossible. A new generation of software enables carriers to automatically rebook passengers with the most logical flights as soon as cancellations occur. These changes are offered as options, which passengers can accept or reject online. Change fees are waived.

Delta was not the only carrier to see the weekend storm coming and to react on Thursday. All of the airlines with major East Coast operations made similar changes, with

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AirTran

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and

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among the first. Not only do such changes benefit customers, they can also save airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs related to crew management, enhanced airport staffing, and re-accommodations.

Holtz said Delta learned a lesson from the weather during the Jan. 30, 2000, Super Bowl between the Rams and Titans, which was played in Atlanta. Because an ice storm was forecast, Delta decided on the preceding Wednesday to cancel all of its Friday departures from its Atlanta hub.

"We decided we did not want to get hundreds of thousands of people into the travel stream and then not be able to operate flights," Holtz said. "We were in the infancy then of being able to contact passengers by BlackBerry and email, and we felt if we can just get ahead of this thing, we would have time to get hold of people and tell them what we were going to do."

But instead of 31 degrees, the Friday temperature was 33 degrees. There was no ice storm. "We didn't even get that much rain," he said. "We (in operations) looked out the window at an empty airport and we thought, 'You know what? We just lost our jobs.' "

But the impact of the wrong guess turned out to be far less than Holtz initially imagined. Given time to deal with Delta's decisions, passengers had made other arrangements. Some arrived in Atlanta early, some drove, some flew to nearby airports, and some flew on other carriers. As a result, Holtz said, "there was no impact to speak of, no bad press, and nobody at the gates pounding on the desks."

That was the moment of realization for Delta, he said: Early cancellations enable passengers to make acceptable decisions. Late ones force them into airport lines.

Reported by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.