Airlines Resume N.Y. Flights as Tally of Irene Cost Awaits

Flight Cancellations in U.S. Exceed 10,300
Planes sit on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, VA, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. airlines are resuming New York City-area service today after Tropical Storm Irene grounded planes in the nation’s busiest aviation market and forced the cancellation of more than 11,200 flights.

United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines, the biggest carriers in the New York area, said they would restart operations at midday. Southwest Airlines Co., US Airways Group Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. also were flying in the region today or preparing to do so.

Airlines whisked jets out of Irene’s way last week, echoing the wintertime practice of pre-emptive cancellations to keep planes from being stranded by blizzards. Their extra costs probably will be “in the millions of dollars versus the tens of millions,” said Helane Becker, a Dahlman Rose & Co. analyst.

“We estimate this to be equivalent to a snowstorm,” Becker, who is based in New York, said in an interview. She said yesterday that she spoke to a “couple of the airlines” in making her assessment.

While no carrier reported major damage, airline spokesmen said it was too soon to project specific financial effects.

“There’s no doubt there was a revenue impact and, in fact, it’s probably in the mid-teens in terms of millions of dollars,” JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said today in an interview on CNBC.

Today’s Cancellations

The six biggest U.S. airlines have more than 1,600 flights that won’t operate today as planes and crew members are repositioned, based on figures from spokesmen. That compares with the U.S. industry’s average of about 31,000 flights on a typical Monday during the summer travel season, according to Houston-based data tracker

Cancellations since Aug. 27 totaled at least 11,216 through today, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. That compared with the scrubbing of almost 20,000 flights in the week that ended Feb. 4 as snow blanketed airports such as Chicago’s O’Hare, a hub for United and AMR Corp.’s American.

JetBlue is aiming for a 3:30 p.m. restart to New York and Boston flights, said Mateo Lleras, a spokesman. Southwest was flying to and from all its northeast airports except Newark, where it expected to resume flying about noon local time, said Katie McDonald, a spokeswoman.

“Our hope is that the operation will be completely back to normal by Tuesday morning,” said Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for US Airways Group Inc., whose New York service includes shuttle flights between New York’s LaGuardia and Washington’s Ronald Reagan National.

Looking Ahead

Airlines scrubbed flights ahead of Irene and waived penalties to rebook travel to help ease today’s operations. With planes already full as the summer vacation season ends, early notice about cancellations was aimed at thinning the number of passengers who needed to be re-accommodated after the storm.

New York’s aviation infrastructure, which includes three major airports run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, faced a weakened Irene, with tropical-storm winds instead of the hurricane-strength gusts that lashed North Carolina a day earlier.

“We dodged a bullet,” Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward said yesterday. The agency ceased aeronautical operations for 32 hours at its airports starting at 10 p.m. on Aug. 27.

Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports reopened for arriving flights, said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman. LaGuardia is open for departures, and Newark and Kennedy airports are set for takeoffs starting at noon, he said.

Today’s Delays

Delays at all three airports this morning were 15 minutes or less, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration website.

The region will be a focal point of air-travel restoration efforts today, because the three biggest airline companies all have bases in the New York area.

United Continental, the world’s largest carrier, has a hub for its Continental unit at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty airport. Chicago-based United also has the largest New York market share by passengers, followed by Atlanta-based Delta.

Delta and American have hubs at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. About 104 million passengers used the three airports last year, making it the busiest U.S. aviation market.

New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, home to corporate and private aircraft serving the region, remained closed due to flooding, said Ron Marsico, a Port Authority spokesman. He said the agency didn’t know when flights would resume there.

American’s terminal in Norfolk, Virginia, had some damage from flooding, said Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the unit of Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp.

Delta and US Airways reported leaky roofs at some of their facilities and offices, while Dallas-based Southwest had water damage to a jetway in Albany, New York.

“We think the level of preparedness for this event from the government, port authorities and others has been extraordinary,” said Lleras, the spokesman for New York-based JetBlue.

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