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Winter storm could strand passengers for days

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

(Photo)
Stranded air travelers sleep on the floor Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
(Seth Wenig ~ The Associated Press)
An East Coast blizzard that has forced nearly 7,000 flight cancellations will leave many travelers stranded through the end of the week.

Runways reopened Monday evening at several major airports in the Northeast. But canceled flights into and out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston left hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for a way home. The storm and its aftermath could end up costing the airlines $100 million, one analyst predicted.

The challenge for the airlines goes beyond weather. Flights are usually full this time of year, making it difficult to rebook travelers affected by a cancellation. Seats are even more scarce than in past years because the airline industry has reduced the number of flights and grounded planes to save money and drive up prices.

"This is a bad time for a blizzard to hit the East Coast," airline consultant Darryl Jenkins said.

He said it will be difficult for the airlines to accommodate all the stranded travelers in the New York area quickly enough, and some may abandon their travel plans.

The paralyzing storm in the Northeast comes a week after several inches of snow shut down London's Heathrow Airport and left travelers sleeping on terminal floors. It took five days for Europe's busiest hub airport to resume normal operations.

By afternoon, major U.S. airlines had announced more than 3,100 canceled flights for Monday. Continental, whose hub in Newark, N.J., was shut down by the storm, scrubbed 800 flights and Delta dropped 1,000. US Airways canceled about 830 flights.

That came on top of at least 3,800 cancellations Sunday, according to figures the airlines provided to The Associated Press.

Once the snow is removed and the runways are open, the big job for the airlines will be helping crowds of stranded passengers find room on a limited number of flights. Many had decamped in the terminals because they couldn't find or get to hotel rooms.

In the best of times, it might take airlines two or three days to accommodate all those travelers on later flights. But this week could prove much more challenging. Planes were expected to be about 90 percent full during the week between Christmas and New Year's, leaving fewer available seats than usual.

Before the storm hit Sunday, airlines moved their jets out of its path so they wouldn't be snowbound. Now they have to get their aircraft back into the affected areas.

American Airlines spokesman Ed Martelle said that if the weather cleared by today, his airline could resume a normal schedule by Wednesday. He declined to say how long stuck passengers might wait for an empty seat.

"Any airline scheduler will tell you it's like playing with a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces keep changing shape," Martelle said. "In some cases we can't give them a new seat because we don't know" when one will be available.

Boston's Logan Airport spokesman Phil Orlandella said airlines were saying that rebooking could drag into Friday -- the start of another holiday weekend.

Nearly two feet of snow fell in New York City and winds blew at nearly 60 mph overnight at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Kennedy Airport and Newark International reopened Monday evening, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The storm dumped 12.4 inches of snow at Philadelphia International Airport -- the highest snow total in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. Airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said 1,200 passengers had spent Sunday night at the airport.

Airlines generally assume no obligation to pay for hotels or meals if passengers are delayed by weather. However, most airlines will allow passengers to get a refund for canceled or severely delayed flights.

Tom Parsons, CEO of travel website Bestfares.com, said some travelers could save money by taking the refund and rebooking a later trip themselves instead of paying higher holiday fares.

But he said people who have used half their ticket and are trying to get home should keep their ticket and work with the airline.

Airlines usually spell out their policies, called a contract of carriage, on their websites. Frustrated travelers were having a hard time getting information from actual airline employees on Monday. By mid-afternoon, the call centers at Delta, American and Continental were swamped, and recordings told customers to try back later.

The airlines themselves are likely to pay a steep price for the storm too.

Helane Becker, an analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co., estimated the airlines could lose $100 million. Fortunately for the airlines, she said, many of the travelers would rebook on later flights "because it's a holiday and people have to get home."

Some travelers were settling in for a long and uncomfortable stay at the airport.

At New York's Kennedy Airport, 22-year-old Eric Schorr and other Columbia University students boarded an El Al flight to Israel Sunday afternoon, only to get stuck on the tarmac when it became clear the plane wouldn't take off.

"They had served us dinner, they were giving us drinks, trying to keep passengers calm, cool and collected," said Schorr, who was told he would be put on another flight Monday night.

"It wasn't as tense as you might have thought," he said, but added, "People are exhausted -- they want to get home."

At Kennedy's Terminal 4, exhausted travelers were propped up along the sloping glass walls. A lucky few had snagged seats, some swathed in red courtesy blankets. Many had been there since Sunday afternoon. "Canceled" blinked out in red lights on every row of the departure board.

French college students Yoann Uzan and Belinda Bergel had saved a year to take their first trip to New York. They said they had slept only an hour in the past two days, but they wouldn't trade the vacation memories for anything.

"It was still a perfect trip . . . we would do it all again," Uzan said. "Well, maybe just one night in the airport, we pray, not two."


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