Published: Feb 10, 2011 7:22 PM EST
Updated: Feb 10, 2011 4:27 PM EST

NEW YORK (AP) - Airlines' strategy to cancel flights early and often ahead of bad weather paid off in December, when not a single U.S. flight was stuck for more than three hours because of a massive post-Christmas blizzard.

Three flights were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours that month, but none of them were held up as a result of the storm. The tally didn't include some international flights that were delayed for more than three hours - including flights operated by Cathay Pacific and British Airways that spent over seven hours on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport. It also doesn't include more than 300 flights that waited for two hours on the tarmac. Twenty-five of those flights were later cancelled.

 U.S. airlines face fines of $27,000 per passengers for tarmac delays of more than three hours. International airlines are not subject to rule, even if they land or takeoff from U.S. airports. The Transportation Department is considering changing the rules to include international airlines.

The blizzard shut Northeast airports and led to nearly 10,000 cancellations by the 18 biggest U.S. airlines. There were about 20,000 cancellations overall in December. By cancelling flights well ahead of bad weather, airlines are better able to keep planes moving through the rest of their networks.

Cancellations don't cost airlines as much as some might think. Canceling a flight eliminates some fuel and labor costs. Many passengers will fly, just on later flights, so the airline still collects its fare.

Widespread cancellations in December helped ease the burden on other airport traffic. U.S. airlines operated 72 percent of their flights on time in December, the same as the year before. Airline on-time rates fell from the month before, though. In November, 83.2 percent of flights were on time.

JetBlue, which canceled 1,400 flights in a span of five days before, during and after the blizzard, operated the fewest on-time flights last month. Only about 58.6 percent of its planes were on time. Hawaiian, United and AirTran had the highest on-time rates in December - all above 80 percent.

The snowstorm stranded thousands of holiday travelers at airports as airlines tried to get passengers on other flights. Planes around the holidays were so full that many passengers waited for days to find their ways home. The number of complaints against airlines rose slightly compared to the same month of 2009. Passengers filed almost 600 complaints with DOT. Most of them were about canceled flights and mishandled baggage. The airlines did a better job of handling bags in December than the year before, with fewer reports of lost or damaged luggage.

The government also said the airlines bumped fewer passengers from overbooked flights in the last quarter of 2009.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)