Passenger Outrage Rises as Storm Snarls U.S. Travel

Passenger Outrage Rises
Travelers wait in line at LaGuardia Airport. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Anger mounted among passengers stranded on airport tarmacs and in terminals as flight delays threatened to stretch into the weekend following the worst December snowstorm to hit New York City in six decades.

As many as 1.2 million airline customers may have been affected by almost 8,200 flight cancellations as the storm that hit three days ago closed major airports. Passengers were forced to try to make new plans, sometimes without being able to reach airlines by phone or online for help.

“There’s a haphazard strategy to how airlines address these issues,” said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. “That’s why passengers get so angry. It’s not about the weather. It’s about how airlines communicate after weather occurs.”

The disruptions affected the nation’s largest and most-congested air travel market during one of the busiest times of the year. With planes already flying at their fullest since World War II, carriers were struggling to find empty seats to rebook travelers.

At least 307 flights have been canceled today, down from thousands in each of the past three days, spokesmen for the airlines said. JetBlue Airways Corp. canceled 120 flights today and said its backlog of stranded passengers may not be fully cleared until Jan. 1.

Reservation Agents

Continental Airlines also canceled 120 flights today, primarily those operated by regional partners at its Newark Liberty airport hub, said Christen David, a spokeswoman for the carrier.

Delays averaged 70 minutes at New York’s Kennedy airport today and a half-hour at Newark’s Liberty, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Nancy Graves spent three days trying to reach Continental Airlines reservations agents by phone to get her daughter rebooked after a Dec. 26 flight from Newark was canceled.

The Westfield, New Jersey, resident had no luck using the airline’s website because it added a change fee that was supposed to be waived and an additional amount for the fare.

“Where’s the CEO?” Graves said in an interview today. “Why isn’t he out here saying, ‘You know, we realize that we’ve impacted all these folks and our phones are not working and our Internet access is down, and we are going to get it fixed. We are going to work all night; we’re going to get it fixed.’ Show some leadership.”

Tarmac Fines

The U.S. Transportation Department is looking into details of the New York flight delays and will review other cases, Olivia Alair, an agency spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was being updated on the crisis.

LaHood, who helped push through a regulation allowing domestic carriers to be fined for tarmac delays of more than three hours, made no public comments. International airlines aren’t covered by the rule.

“What can airlines do better?” asked Michael Boyd, president of aviation consultant Boyd Group International Inc. in Evergreen, Colorado. “They’re doing everything they can. If you weren’t going to or from the East Coast, it didn’t affect you.”

Most of the passenger backlog will be cleared by tonight, Boyd predicted.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports, faulted some airlines after at least six international flights were stuck on the tarmac at Kennedy with passengers aboard because they had no gates to use.

Place to Dock

“It is an airline’s responsibility to make sure before they leave their point of origin to make sure that they have a gate assignment,” said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman. “These airlines did not. So they got to the airport and had no place to dock.”

Passengers on a Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. flight were stuck on the tarmac at Kennedy for almost 12 hours yesterday as they waited for a gate. Four other flights operated by the carrier were also stranded for more than four hours, Cathay said in a statement today, apologizing for delays. More than 1,100 people were onboard the five flights, the carrier said.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong-based airline said the flights were dispatched under the belief that gates would be available.

Upon arrival, “there were no gates available and our options were limited,” said the spokesman, Gus Whitcomb. “Unfortunately, we ended up with passengers on airplanes for far too long before we were able to get them to the gates.”

‘Little Planes’

Staff with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent the morning seeking gates where the planes could dock, even though that isn’t the agency’s responsibility, said Coleman, the agency’s spokesman.

Sara Schaefer, a 27-year-old psychology student from Munich, said she arrived at Kennedy yesterday to find her American Eagle commuter flight to Norfolk, Virginia, wouldn’t be taking off because three of the four runways were closed and “little planes” were canceled.

“I called the airline and they said it’s Mother Earth and out of our control,” said Schaefer, who traveled to the U.S. with her fiance on Christmas Day. She returned to Manhattan last night to catch a bus slated to arrive in Norfolk at 6 a.m. today.

Call-Center Waits

Other passengers complained about spending 90 minutes on hold before reaching reservations agents, or not being able to get an answer at all. AMR Corp.’s American and US Airways added agents to field calls or put workers on mandatory overtime.

American Airlines, the third-biggest U.S. carrier, said operations were almost normal today at the three large New York-area airports. The carrier canceled two flights into Kennedy airport today, and its Eagle commuter line has canceled 51, said Ed Martelle, a spokesman.

“It’s looking brighter,” he said in an interview. Ice on the ground in ramp and gate areas remains a problem at LaGuardia, Martelle said.

US Airways Group Inc. has canceled three flights today, spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an e-mail. The carrier added extra flights on a few routes out of Boston and a Philadelphia-to-Phoenix flight, Lehmacher said.

Delta Air Lines Inc. canceled seven flights and said it would add one extra Boeing 777 flight tomorrow from Kennedy to Atlanta. Continental added 12 flights to help clear backlogs, David said.

Subways, Buses

“We really aren’t experiencing a huge backlog in any one particular area,” Lehmacher said. “We anticipate that the small backlog that exists will be resolved by the end of the day today.”

Carriers had struggled once the snow stopped on Dec. 27 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.

Snowdrifts continue to keep the subway’s N line out of service in Brooklyn, along with the Franklin Avenue shuttle, said Deirdre Parker, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokeswoman. The Q and B lines began running this morning and remaining lines are running on almost normal schedules, she said.

Some bus routes still aren’t operating, and Parker advised residents of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens to check the MTA’s website before traveling.

‘Better Service Passengers’

By pre-canceling flights ahead of the storm, airlines were able to avoid stranding planes and crews in shuttered airports, which kept cancellations from rippling through the rest of their route systems, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers.

“I am confident the airlines will look at the processes they had in place during this storm and they will determine if changes need to be made to improve and better serve passengers,” Debby McElroy, executive vice president for Airports Council International-North America, said in an interview. “They may decide there really isn’t anything else they can do.”

Airlines have culled airplanes from their fleets and cut capacity during the past two years to reduce costs and better match supply to demand that collapsed during the recession. As a result, carriers have few spare planes to put into service. The volume of holiday travel poses an additional obstacle.

Full Planes

“Many flights during the holidays are at 100 percent load factor,” David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas, said of the average number of occupied seats. “This means the airlines’ ability to accommodate travelers from canceled flights is greatly diminished.”

Swierenga estimated the largest U.S. airlines, which may have combined profits of more than $3 billion this year, will suffer a revenue loss of about $150 million from the storm. That’s based on an assumed average round-trip fare of $300 and 150 passengers per plane, with about half of affected passengers rebooking flights, he said.

Saul Tejada, a limousine driver, was waiting at 8:30 p.m. for an airline passenger who had been stuck on the tarmac since about 2:30 p.m.

“Every plane seems to be awaiting a gate,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re low on manpower or what, but this is ridiculous.”

“It’s rough, but if we tell them we’re going to be here, we’re going to be here,” he said. Fifteen minutes later, Tejada received a text message from the passenger saying that she was about to get off her plane.

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