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Airlines Say Most Storm-Stranded Travelers on Way Home

Airlines Say Most Storm-Stranded Passengers on Flights Home
Travelers sit by a window to watch the snow being removed from the tarmac near a Southwest Airlines Co. plane outside the Central Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in the Queens borough of New York. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Delta Air Lines Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and other U.S. carriers say they’ve rebooked most of the passengers stranded by the worst December snowstorm to hit New York City in six decades.

Delta, which canceled 3,000 flights with about 250,000 passengers, has rescheduled almost all and will carry more than 90 percent of them to their destinations by the end of today, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based carrier.

About 8,200 flights were canceled because of the snowstorm that began last weekend, affecting as many as 1.2 million travelers, many of whom criticized airlines for not keeping them better informed. All three major airports in the New York area were closed for portions of Dec. 26 and Dec. 27 amid the city’s heaviest December snowfall since 1948.

“Most passengers have already been re-accommodated, and we’ll have north of 90 percent of them cleared today,” said Delta’s Black. “The big issue right now is people traveling to destinations where we only fly a couple times a day and there’s only a finite number of seats to that city. Those people might take a little longer.”

JetBlue, which has its main hub at Kennedy, hopes to re-accommodate most of its travelers by the end of the weekend, said Jen Carrillo, a spokeswoman for the New York-based carrier. JetBlue canceled about 40 flights today, down from 120 yesterday.

United Continental

AirTran Holdings Inc., which agreed to be bought by Southwest Airlines Co. in September, added one extra flight each to New York’s LaGuardia, Boston and Milwaukee on Dec. 28 and the “vast majority” of stranded passengers have already arrived at their destinations, said Christopher White, a company spokesman.

Rescheduling passengers was a challenge for airlines because planes in the U.S. are already flying about 90 percent full on the busiest holiday travel days. That’s the highest level since World War II after airlines cut capacity by 9.1 percent in the past five years.

Most United Continental Holdings Inc. passengers flying with the United unit are “home or on their way home” by today, said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman. The Chicago-based carrier added an extra flight with a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which can hold 370 passengers, from Los Angeles to New York, he said.

Christen David, a spokeswoman for the Continental unit whose hub is at New Jersey’s Newark airport, didn’t have information available about its recovery effort. United and Continental merged in October to leapfrog Delta as the world’s largest carrier.

‘An Entire Week’

Continental’s response to the snowstorm frustrated Suzanne Paola, a professor at Western Washington University, who has been stranded in Newark since the carrier canceled her Dec. 28 flight. She and her husband spent hours on the phone and at the airport to get rebooked, only to be told Continental couldn’t fly them and their 13-year-old son back to Seattle until Jan. 3.

“That’s almost a whole week. How is it possible they had nothing for an entire week?” said Paola, 54. The family is trying to get back to Seattle before Jan. 1 to pick up a Korean exchange student who is arriving that day.

Delta had available seats on a flight leaving at 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, so Paola spent $570 each for those new tickets. Continental offered to refund half the fare for her original tickets, or about $244 each, she said.

Lost Revenue

The storm may have cost the airlines about $150 million in revenue from some passengers canceling trips altogether, others needing rebooking and the loss of last minute walk-up passengers who typically pay the highest fares, estimated David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas. His estimate assumes an average round-trip fare of $300 per person and about 150 passengers per plane.

In February, when a snowstorm shut the Washington, D.C., airports for several days, Delta said it incurred net costs of $30 million from 7,000 canceled flights. The storm reduced revenue by $65 million, while fuel and labor savings were $35 million, Delta said.

The savings from not operating aircraft during storms and flying planes as full as possible during the recovery period usually offset much of the cost, said Robert Mann, owner of airline consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.

Tim Omaggio, a Morristown, New Jersey, father whose daughter was scheduled to fly from Newark to Phoenix on Dec. 28, said he understood the challenge the airlines faced in balancing passenger demands with uncontrollable weather conditions.

He filed a complaint with Continental, though, after being unable to get help from airline employees at the airport or on the phone.

“They should have called everybody they could to be on-site at Newark,” he said in an interview. “There were so few employees there that you literally would look around and there was no one you could even ask anything. If you did find somebody, they really had no idea what was going on.”

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