By Alana Wise
NEW YORK, March 14 (Reuters) - U.S. airlines canceled thousands of flights ahead of Tuesday's blizzard in the northeastern United States, but the weaker-than-forecast storm left some passengers complaining the preemptive strategy was too drastic.
U.S. airlines canceled nearly 6,500 Tuesday flights, according to tracking service FlightAware.com, a move aimed at avoiding costly delays and passenger inconvenience.
"I do believe in some cities this was overly dramatic," Patrick Pryor, a 24-year-old whose flight to Chicago from his home in St. Louis was delayed due to fallout from the storm.
"I can 100 percent tell you there was nothing going on in STL for us to sit on the tarmac for over one hour."
Major U.S. carriers scrapped all or most of their flights at the three New York-area airports, LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International, in preparation for the storm.
The cancellations were prompted by National Weather Service forecasts on Monday of up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow in some parts of the Northeast. It scaled back those predictions on Tuesday for places such as New York City, which was due to get between 4 and 8 inches (10 and 20 cm).
Adam Johnson was stuck in Philadelphia on an almost two-hour flight delay for his flight back home to Saint Paul, Minnesota. "I blame meteorologists and scare tactics announcing 12 to 18 inch totals,” he said.
Scrapping flights hours ahead of a storm lets an airline re-allocate planes and crew earlier, meaning fewer flights and passengers canceled in total as a storm passes.
Canceling early also spares travelers unnecessary trips to the airport and gives them more options to rebook than when faced with a last-minute cancellation.
"Safety of our employees and customers is at the top of our list," United Airlines spokeswoman Erin Benson said. "Proactively canceling the flights allows us to give our customers advance notice and also get our operations up and running after the storm passes.”
But the strategy risks a ripple effect of cancellations and delays that may be bigger than necessary. Airlines also incur significant costs in re-routing and re-booking passengers, a factor that may have spooked investors on Tuesday.
Shares of American Airlines Group Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp , Delta Air Lines Inc and Southwest Airlines Co ended the day more than 2 percent lower, while the Dow Jones U.S. airlines index ended the day down nearly 3 percent.
(Reporting by Alana Wise, Angela Moon and Arunima Banerjee; editing by Anna Driver and Cynthia Osterman)