Winter Storm Could Strand Air Passengers For Days

An East Coast blizzard that has forced more than 6,000 flight cancelations will leave many travelers stranded through the end of the week.

Runways were expected to reopen Monday evening at several major airports in the Northeast. But flights into and out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston left hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for a way home.

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. Also, the industry has reduced the number of planes it flies over the past two years as a way to save money. That scarcity is making it difficult to position more aircraft in the Northeast, without causing disruptions elsewhere in the system.

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.

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.

By midmorning, American canceled 252 flights for Monday and sister carrier American Eagle scratched another 194. Delta Air Lines canceled 700 flights, US Airways canceled 550 including regional flights, and Southwest dropped 188. United and Continental were updating their figures but had already announced nearly 300 cancelations. These carriers cancelled more than 3,000 flights on Sunday.

American Airlines spokesman Ed Martelle said if the weather clears by Tuesday, the airline can 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," he 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. The airport was expected to open at 6 p.m. EST, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The storm dumped 12.4 inches of snow at Philadelphia International Airport - the highest snow total in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. The airport cancelled about 200 flights Monday morning and airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said 1,200 passengers were stranded at the airport overnight.

From the passenger's point of view, the timing of the new storm could hardly have been worse.

U.S. airlines have not fully replaced all the flights they eliminated in 2008 and 2009 to save money and fuel. Planes are packed with more passengers - occupancy averaged around 80 percent in November and was expected to be higher during the holidays. That means fewer empty seats the rest of the week to accommodate people whose flights were canceled Sunday and Monday.

Airline reservation centers were kept busy fielding calls from displaced travelers, some of whom reported being put on hold for more than an hour. Continental tweeted that it was taking as many calls as it could handle, asking passengers to be patient. American said it called in extra employees to staff the phone lines.

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."

Travel writer Jason Cochran has been at the airport since 4 p.m. Sunday. He says he boarded his flight to London and was then stuck on the plane for hours before the flight was canceled.

He hasn't been able to get back to his Manhattan home because there's no way to leave the airport. Cochran said he's only seen one taxi, and the driver wanted $100 to take him home.

This program aired on December 27, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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