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HURRICANE IKE'S EFFECT ON TRAVEL
By Joe Brancatelli
A note to readers: Hurricane Ike's deadly dash through Texas required me to post news as it developed. Naturally, the most recent news items are at the top, so this column does read like a Pinter play: backward. The flight cancellation and delay information is from FlightStats.com, that invaluable resource that you should already have bookmarked.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2 P.M. EDT
Continental Airlines has reopened its hub at Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH). But it has been rough going, as you might expect. Continental has already cancelled 30 of today's 273 departures there. Seventy percent of the flights that are departing are leaving late. Arrivals are better, although Continental cancelled many Sunday-night departures to Houston from Latin America. Continental Express is doing less well: 80 of its 268 scheduled Houston departures today have already been cancelled and about half the flights that are going out are late.

If you're scheduled to fly to or through IAH on Continental this week, try to change your itinerary. The airline is having the expected logistical problems given that employees are having trouble finding gas to come to work and roads are still difficult to navigate.

Houston/Hobby Airport remains closed. Southwest Airlines says it will resume limited service on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Houston Airport Web site (http://www.fly2houston.com/) is back up after being offline for most of the last few days.

American and American Eagle's situation at its Dallas Fort Worth hub has settled down. The two carriers have cancelled 29 flights so far today.

And things appear back to normal (such as normal is) at Chicago/O'Hare, which had heavy rains and road flooding over the weekend.

The remnants of Hurricane Ike are now what the weather freaks like to call a "wind event" and have moved into the Northeast. That is slowing down aircraft movements at airports in the Northeast, including New York and Boston.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 10 P.M. EDT
Continental Airlines says it will open its Houston Intercontinental hub on Monday. But I wouldn't expect conditions to be anything like normal. Continental says it plans to run the "vast majority" of its mainline flights, but admits its commuter operations will operate at a "reduced level." I'd proceed with extreme caution, however. The airport itself suffered some damage and Continental's own employees in Houston are having trouble getting basics: Groceries and gasoline are in short supply, many roads are still flooded and the Houston Chronicle Web site (http://www.chron.com) says "millions" are without power in the region. Continental is bringing in people from its other hubs to help, but I'd avoid Intercontinental Airport for a few days if you can.

Southwest Airlines will not resume its operations at Houston's Hobby Airport tomorrow. And it plans to fly only between 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Central Time on Tuesday and Wednesday.

By the way, the Web site for Houston's airports (http://www.fly2houston.com/) has been down for hours.

Meanwhile, American Airlines and its wholly owned American Eagle subsidiary continue to struggle at its hub in Dallas/Fort Worth, which was obliquely whacked by Ike. American and American Eagle have so far cancelled almost 150 flights systemwide today and about 10 percent of their operations have been delayed more than 45 minutes. (Some of these numbers are due to continuing problems at Chicago/O'Hare, which got hit with a storm and flooding yesterday. And some of these numbers are just American being American, which is now consistently worst in the nation for on-time operations and among the worst for cancellations.)

Southwest, which operates from Dallas/Love Field, cancelled about 20 percent of its flights there today. But its on-time percentage has been above 90 percent for the flights that have operated.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 8:15 P.M. EDT
Continental Airlines says that its Houston Intercontinental hub will remain closed tomorrow (Sunday) and the first flights will depart and arrive on Monday morning, September 15. I would expect Monday and Tuesday will be tough around the Continental system, so plan accordingly.

It's also been a very tough day in Dallas, which has been lashed by the remnants of Ike, and Chicago, where there have been heavy rains all day.

American Airlines, which has hubs in both cities, has cancelled 116 departures so far today. That's about 6 percent of its scheduled flights. About 11 percent of its remaining flights are "excessively" late, which means more than 45 minutes behind schedule. Things are worse at American Eagle, American's wholly owned commuter subsidiary. Eagle has cancelled 127 flights so far today, or about 10 percent of its schedule. About 13 percent of its remaining flights are running excessively late.

At Southwest Airlines, which has a large presence throughout Texas and has a large operation in Chicago, it's also been a tough day for cancellations. It has cancelled 257 flights so far today, or about 10 percent of its operations. But the remainder of its schedule is running 91 percent on-time.

United Airlines, with a hub at Chicago/O'Hare, has cancelled far fewer flights. But 15 percent of its operation systemwide is running excessively late.

One last note: The AAA says nationwide gasoline prices jumped 6 cents overnight and I've received reports from readers of fast price hikes as far north as Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 3:30 P.M. EDT
Continental Airlines has reaffirmed that its Houston Intercontinental hub will stay closed throughout the rest of the day. They've made no estimate on when flights could resume.

And as the storm moves through Texas, Dallas-area airports are getting hit. As of 3 p.m. DFW-based American Airlines and its wholly owned American Eagle commuter subsidiary have cancelled more than 200 flights systemwide. (Some of those flights are at American's O'Hare hub; see below.)

Southwest Airlines, which has extensive operations throughout Texas, has cancelled more than 225 flights so far today. Most of them, obviously, are at Houston/Hobby, which is also closed. But they are also piling up at Dallas/Love Field, too, where Southwest has suspended all flying until 5 p.m. Central Time.

Now, on to that O'Hare situation. Heavy rains and local flooding on the roads leading to the airport are causing real problems. O'Hare-based United Airlines has cancelled 42 flights systemwide and a few more have been cancelled by its commuter carriers flying as United Express. If you're flying to/from O'Hare on United or American today or tomorrow, the airlines have now issued some fee waivers if you want to change your itinerary.

Naturally, the flights that are operating at DFW, Dallas/Love, O'Hare and Chicago/Midway are subject to delays that the FAA categorizes as "excessive," which means more than 45 minutes.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 11 A.M. EDT
Continental's hub at Houston/Intercontinental remains closed and may not open for hours or at all today. When it does reopen, expect long delays and higher-than-normal cancellations. Some people and equipment are sure to be out of position and that will cascade throughout the system throughout next week.

The huge storm is now beginning to lick at Dallas, which is home to American's hub at Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Given that American is already worst in the nation for on-time operation and near the bottom for cancellations, it'll be hard to tell what part of AA's schedule is being impacted by Ike and what part of the delays and cancellations are what is now SOP at the nation's largest carrier. Needless to say, however, expect a rotten week at American as the disruptions cascade throughout the AA system.

Needless to say, Ike is hurting operations at airports throughout Texas, Louisiana, and, to a lesser extent, neighboring states. Plan accordingly. The storm, in a weakened state, seems to be heading toward Arkansas.

Also worth noting: Gasoline prices are spiking at stations in the south and Texas panhandle regions. We're talking about overnight increases of 5 to 50 cents a gallon. It's not based on the price of oil since it closed at $101 a barrel yesterday, which is as low as it's been since the beginning of the year. The problem now is that the storm has impacted Gulf Coast refineries. They may be out of commission for weeks or even a month and prices may keep rising at the pump since they supply about a quarter of our gasoline.

Since most gas-station owners now literally pay on the barrelhead for deliveries, a further price spike nationwide can be expected. At the very least, you might want to fill up your vehicles today to avoid a nasty shock.

For your information, all three cable-news operations are now in around-the-clock coverage of events. So is The Weather Channel. CNN.com is carrying CNN's coverage live. MSNBC.com is streaming coverage from KPRC, a Houston station. FoxNews.com is picking up some of the channel's video feeds. If you have DirecTV, it is picking up the feed of Houston's KHOU and broadcasting it nationwide on Channel 361.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 8 A.M. EDT
Hurricane Ike is huge and it is bearing down on Galveston, Houston and much of the western Gulf Coast. The National Weather Service seems both apoplectic and apocalyptic on this one. A warning last night predicted "certain death" from a tsunami of water--so please pay attention. Continental is rushing to get its last flights out of its Houston hub before it battens down for Ike's landfall later today. This will disrupt lives and travel this weekend, so please be careful.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.