Stranded Passengers Face Wait as Storm Recovery Starts
Passengers stranded when airlines canceled more than 7,000 flights amid a winter storm in the eastern U.S. may wait days for another flight as carriers move aircraft and search for seats on crowded planes.
Migel Arras was stuck in Dallas since yesterday, when his American Airlines flight to New York was canceled. He wasn’t booked on another flight until Jan. 1, and was No. 88 on a standby list today for an earlier flight.
“They’re all overbooked,” he said.
While the three major airports in the New York area reopened, flights into Newark’s Liberty airport were delayed more than eight hours because of snow and ice, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates all three sites. Flights into New York’s Kennedy were delayed more than five hours, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, while LaGuardia was under a “traffic management program” with arriving flights about two hours behind schedule.
Both runways at LaGuardia were open, while Newark and Kennedy were using one runway each as of this afternoon, said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman.
Stuck on Tarmac
Four international flights remained on the tarmac for hours at Kennedy after landing between 2:15 a.m. and 4 a.m. without gate assignments, Coleman said. One of the planes, flown by Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., was on the ground with passengers aboard from 2:15 a.m. to about 1 p.m., or almost 11 hours, and another Cathay Pacific flight was on the tarmac for about an hour less than that, Coleman said.
The Port Authority found gates for the two Cathay Pacific flights, he said. It’s the responsibility of airlines to have gate assignments before leaving their point of origin, Coleman said.
A third Cathay Pacific flight also was stranded on the tarmac, said Gus Whitcomb, a spokesman for the airline.
“We dispatched these flights with the belief we were going to have gates available,” he said. “There were no gates available and our options were limited. Unfortunately we ended up with passengers on airplanes for far too long before were able to get them to the gates.”
A British Airways Plc flight from London arrived at JFK at 10:30 p.m. yesterday and its 316 passengers and crew weren’t able to deplane until 6 a.m. today, said John Lampl, a spokesman for the airline.
All gates were occupied by flights that already had arrived and couldn’t depart because the airport was shut down, he said. “The airplane was fully self-sufficient, it was just the frustration that there were no gates available.”
US Airways Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Continental Airlines and American canceled at least 927 flights today because of the weather, spokesmen for the carriers said.
“We are utilizing all available resources to reinstitute flights as quickly as possible,” said Christen David, a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines. The airline is urging customers not to travel to New York-area airports until they have a confirmed reservation for a flight.
Six U.S. carriers canceled at least 3,299 flights yesterday, mostly in Philadelphia and the New York area. That built on 3,334 flights grounded Dec. 26 by snowfall of as much as 20 inches (51 centimeters) and winds gusting to 30 mph.
Carriers struggled to relocate aircraft and crews while factoring in airport employees unable to travel to work after New York’s heaviest December snowfall since 1948 hampered local train service.
“One plane could fix the issue,” said Arras, 26, who is trying to return home to New York after a trip to Mexico. “The 200 people who are on the list for standby, they could take them there. But they’re just making us wait.”
The flights are also getting costlier, with the three biggest U.S. airlines raising round-trip fares by $20. The increases, put into place yesterday, won’t affect people rebooking canceled flights.
The FAA, which doesn’t offer assistance to stranded passengers, didn’t comment on what, if any, action it could take in this case.
“The Department of Transportation believes airline passengers have rights and should be able to expect fair treatment when they fly,” Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail without elaborating.
The FAA doesn’t gather real-time data on flight delays or stranded passengers. The Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers, doesn’t track numbers of stranded passengers or canceled flights either.
AMR Corp.’s American and Delta Air Lines Inc. both said today they are trying to add extra flights. To do so, the carriers have to find a spare plane, then two pilots who can fly that type of aircraft, a crew of flight attendants and space to get it into the affected airport.
Clearing the Backlog
“You can’t snap your fingers and airplanes magically appear,” said Ed Martelle, a spokesman at American’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters. “There are times when there are not even any spares. We’re trying to make sure we can get some airplanes passengers can get on and go.”
Airlines are having significant difficulties getting personnel to Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports, said the Port Authority’s Coleman, who emphasized the reports are anecdotal.
US Airways Group Inc. added two extra flights today between Charlotte, North Carolina, and New York’s LaGuardia and between Charlotte and Philadelphia to help clear the backlog, said Michelle Mohr, spokeswoman for the Tempe, Arizona-based airline.
Separately, American, Delta and United Continental Holdings Inc. raised most domestic round-trip fares by $20, according to FareCompare.com, website that reviews ticket prices. American and Delta boosted fares yesterday, and United and Continental followed today, said Graeme Wallace of Dallas-based FareCompare.
‘Man A Phone’
Spokesmen for Delta, United and Continental confirmed their increases, while Martelle said he couldn’t do so for American.
American added reservations agents yesterday, after a flood of calls from passengers on canceled flights Dec. 26, Martelle said. The volume of calls from people trying to rebook flights is more than double the normal level, he said.
“We are calling people in off their vacation, trying to find people who can man a phone anyway we can,” Martelle said. “We’re extending part-timers so there will be additional manpower.”
The time needed to accommodate affected passengers will depend on the length of the shutdowns, he said. “It’s a moving target. I don’t know how fast we can get them on planes.”
Rebooking passengers is more difficult because the holidays are a high-demand travel time, and because carriers have spent the past two years cutting flight capacity to better match demand eroded by the recession.
Load factor, or the percentage of seats filled, already was on pace to finish the year at its highest since 1944, according to data from the airlines, the Air Transport Association and the U.S. Transportation Department.
Both JetBlue Airways Corp. and Delta have been “quite responsive” to customers, reaching them through social- networking website Twitter, said Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior editor with Southlake, Texas-based travel website Travelocity.com. Travelers should check in for flights as soon as possible, up to 24 hours before the departure time, she said.
“There are going to be a lot of stranded people trying to get your seat,” Brown said. “If you’re late to the airport and miss the cutoff for check-in, it’ll be given away.”
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