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HOW'S WINTER TREATING YOU SO FAR?
By Joe Brancatelli
When snowflakes started fluttering down on Thanksgiving Day at the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters, I suspected the winter was going to be as bad as some of the experts were predicting.

But even in my worst nightmare--and, being a business traveler, I have some vivid nightmares about the airlines--I could not have imagined what the winter of 2010-2011 had in store for us.

I've already forgotten the pre-winter nightmare in Europe the weekend before Christmas. Do you remember the Boxing Day Blizzard in the East? How 'bout early January's Southern Ice Storm that presaged still another I-95 Corridor blizzard? Or the unnamed storm that pounded us just a few days ago?

And now, just for fun (or something) comes the Fracas in February. Here's how we've been covering it. As usual, read backwards …

8:30pm ET 2/4/11, FRIDAY
WEIRD TEXAS WEATHER TAKES DOWN THE DAY

WOE & SNOW: THIS WEEK'S CANCELLATIONS

Airport

Mon 1/31

Tue 2/1

Wed 2/2

Thu 2/3

Fri 2/4

Atlanta

70

398

311

108

125

BWI

25

201

215

44

18

Boston/Logan

27

545

718

131

33

Charlotte

15

198

141

47

50

Chicago/MDW

21

323

447**

41

19

Chicago/ORD

75

1359

2248**

1109

170

Cincinnati

16

227

146

41

27

Cleveland

3

260

229

26

21

D/FW

78

1335

637

218

711

Denver

142

293

225

68

42

Detroit/Metro

40

353

590

97

48

Houston/IAH

21

234

151

635***

819***

Memphis

30

146

98

64

119

MSP

53

229

262

41

27

Newark

38

697

516

74

49

NY/JFK

23

501

338

66

32

NY/LGA

52

732

670

138

64

Philadelphia

29

358

342

53

40

St. Louis

152

455*

244

40

39

Wash/Dulles

24

191

155

48

28

Wash/DCA

48

311

326

76

50

Total

982

9346

9009

3165

2531

Source: FlightStats.com Time: 2-4-11 @ 6:30pm ET *St. Louis had just 25 departures and arrivals on 2/1. **Chicago's airports had just 47 departures and arrivals on 2/2. ***Continental closed its IAH hub at 6pm CT on 2/3 before a storm. It reopened at 10am CT on 2/4.

It was almost a good day to travel. But then there was Texas.

Continental Airlines' precautionary closing of its Houston/Intercontinental Airport hub did not last as long as planned--it was down from 6pm CT last night until 10am CT today, about five hours shorter than announced--but there were plenty of cancellations. More than 800 takeoffs and landings were scrubbed today.

But at least Continental planned for the ice that hobbled the Houston area and much of Texas. American Airlines gambled that there'd be no disruption at its big Dallas/Fort Worth hub, but upwards of six inches of snow fell on the Dallas Metroplex. That led to more than 700 unplanned departure and arrival cancellations today. Added to the more than 2,500 cancellations this week at DFW, there is now a real question if everyone with tickets for Sunday's Super Bowl will find a flight into DFW. I haven't checked, but I'm sure the sports books in Las Vegas have an over-under on the number of folks who have seats, but no flights.

The more than 1,500 cancellations at Texas' two mega-hubs today accounted for about 60 percent of the problems across the nation (see chart). Almost 250 of the remaining cancellations were at Atlanta and Memphis. The two Delta hubs were contending with a wintry mix.

There's another annoying storm headed for the Northeast this weekend. But I give up. And I'm sure you do, too. Just have a good weekend. Enjoy the Shivering Super Bowl. I'm thinking Packers, but what do I know?

9:15am ET 2/4/11, FRIDAY
TEXAS IS TOAST TODAY

Another worst-case scenario in a winter of worst-case weather scenarios has happened this morning.

The ice storm that led Continental to shut down its Houston/Intercontinental hub yesterday afternoon did reach Dallas/Fort Worth after all--as snow. That had led to about 500 cancellations already at DFW and there are very few takeoffs and arrivals. In fact, there have been fewer than 100 flights coming and going so far today. That's at an airport that usually handles more than 1,800 flights a day.

Houston has gotten its ice storm and IAH is basically at a standstill. There have been fewer than 20 departures and arrivals so far today. At the moment, Continental says its IAH hub will remain down until at least 10am CT today.

Travel to, from and around the rest of Texas is difficult or impossible, too. Ice, snow and all the wintry things that Texas isn't used to is messing up airports and the roads.

A bit of good news? While there have already been about 100 cancellations at Chicago/O'Hare this morning, traffic is moving again and the airport is bouncing back.

And for those of you tracking the Egypt situation, it seems like our old friends at MediaHopper.com (aka WwiTV.com) have the most stable feed of Al Jazeera's live English language coverage. The URL is: http://wwitv.com/tv_channels/b3554.htm

8pm ET 2/3/11, THURSDAY
WHEN 3,000 CANCELLATIONS IS GOOD NEWS

In this winter, this actually qualifies as the good news: There have only been around 3,000 cancelled takeoffs and landings today at the 21 airports we've been tracking this week (see chart). More than half of the cancellations came at two airports: Chicago/O'Hare, just getting back on its metaphoric feet after Tuesday night/Wednesday morning's blizzard, and Houston's Intercontinental Airport, bracing for snow and ice tonight and Friday.

Continental's decision to close its IAH hub at 3pm CT today and keep it shut until at least noon on Friday is the big news, of course. (Houston/Hobby, dominated by Southwest Airlines, is also done for the night and tomorrow morning.) But there could be some tricky black holes: Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta are at the edges of bad weather: Dallas is uncomfortably near the Texas snow and Atlanta is in a big precipitation field that should dump rain. But if the snow system wobbles toward DFW and Atlanta's temperatures drop into the freezing-rain zone, look out. And Charlotte, US Airways' largest hub, could get some schedule-wrecking ice.

More snow is predicted for most of the Northeast over the weekend. Yippee.

And if you're hoping to get back on the road next week, again, beware. The weather wonks are still noodling a big snowstorm starting as early as Tuesday.

Finally, there's this: The folks who follow this stuff say there is snow covering 60 percent of the nation.

11am ET 2/3/11, THURSDAY
THIS IS NO TIME FOR HUMOR...OR IS IT?

What should travelers stuck at an airport do while waiting for a flight? Here are some tongue-in-cheek suggestions from CSA Travel Protection, a California-based travel-insurance merchant. I am sure the suggestions will all seem funnier at some later date, when we're not stuck at an airport.
+ Buy $15 margaritas and $10 sandwiches for all your "new friends."
+ Hog all of the power outlets by charging your phone, laptop and iPod at the same time.
+ Create intriguing, soap opera-like background stories for other waiting passengers.
+ Play the "count the Starbucks in the terminal" game.
+ See how many people you can get to smile back at you.
+ Check the payphones and vending machines for change.
+ Note--and admire--bad ties.
+ Return all the unclaimed luggage carts.

9:15am ET 2/3/11, THURSDAY
DOWN GOES HOUSTON/INTERCONTINENTAL

As I warned you only an hour or so ago, the hubs in Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth face daunting weather conditions tomorrow.

Continental Airlines, which operates from Houston/Intercontinental, says it will suspend all flights there starting at 3pm CT today. At the moment, the airline says it closure will extend through noon central time tomorrow, February 4. Continental has posted a reaccommodation policy here.

No word from American Airlines, which operates at DFW, about operations there later today and tomorrow. American may try and work longer since it is still trying to recover from the huge problems at DFW earlier in the week.

Southwest Airlines, which has large operations at both Houston/Hobby and Dallas/Love Field, is offering a reaccommodation policy for both today and tomorrow. In fact, it extends to many of its Texas destinations. The details are here.

And now some good news for those of you tracking the Egypt situation via Al Jazeera's live English feed. While its own site (http://english.aljazeera.net/watch_now/) continues to be down, the live English feed is now also available via You Tube and Facebook. Here are the links:
http://www.youtube.com/aljazeeraenglish
http://www.facebook.com/aljazeera

And two other (if constricted) coverage options. CNN Live is devoting several of its feeds to the Egypt situation. At the moment, it is offering Al Masriya's coverage (in Arabic), a feed of Egyptian State TV (also in Arabic and in a weird, alternate, government-filtered dimension) and a raw video feed with no audio. Moreover, BBCNews.com is offering occasional live video coverage and a live text blog.

8am ET 2/3/11, THURSDAY
CHICAGO STILL A MESS, TEXAS TROUBLES COMING

I wanted to update you on today's travel situation and your ability to tap into news from Egypt, where the situation has turned deadly.

The good news: Most U.S. airports are operating normally, although cancellations continue to be higher than normal, especially at airports in the Northeast and at Dallas/Fort Worth.

The bad news: Chicago remains a mess. At least 1,000 of O'Hare's 2,500 scheduled takeoffs and landings today have been cancelled. Many of those are for travel before noon. Two examples: Of the 213 scheduled departures in the 6-9am CT period, 198 have been cancelled. During the 9am-noon CT period, 163 of the 223 scheduled departures have already been cancelled. The situation is similar at Chicago/Midway, which is home to Southwest Airlines' big operations. (As usual, these numbers come from the fine folks at FlightStats.com.)

The disconcerting news: Snow and ice are predicted for Dallas and Houston on Friday, which will snarl operations at the important hub airports there.

So if you need to get on the road in the next two days, try to avoid Chicago, DFW and Houston. That's a daunting task, of course, but at least some cities are operating again.

Finally, the Egypt situation. As you may have heard, clashes between anti-government protesters and heavily armed (suspiciously heavily armed) Mubarak supporters killed five people and injured dozens more overnight. And our best window into the situation, Al Jazeera's live English feed, is down. We can only hope the situation clears up soon.

(In the meantime, if you have DirectTV or Dish Network, the brilliant LinkTV network is running some Al Jazeera feeds. Check its schedule of special broadcasts at http://www.linktv.org/)

10:30pm ET 2/2/11, WEDNESDAY
A LITTLE BETTER TOMORROW, THEN LOOK OUT FRIDAY

This isn't saying much, but today was better than yesterday, with about 300 fewer canceled takeoffs and landings at the 21 airports East of the Rockies that I've been tracking this week (see chart).

It'll be even better tomorrow, at least in the narrow sense that we're not likely to have another 9,000 cancellations. But then comes Friday, when a big storm hits parts of the South. They're even predicting snow for Houston, which should make travel through IAH a real treat. Next week? Another big storm for the Midwest and East is on the radar of weather geeks.

So it looks like you have a one-day window to get your travel done this week. I don't even want to think about how far behind some of us are thanks to this wild streak of weather that began just before Christmas in Europe.

Meanwhile, just a few of today's lowlights:
+ Fewer than four dozen takeoffs and landings were recorded at O'Hare and Midway airports.
+ Chicagoland in general remains in shutdown mode after a brutal overnight blizzard that dumped 18-30 inches on the region. Hundreds of cars are literally stranded on Lake Shore Drive, which is still closed.
+ It'll be wicked cold almost everywhere in the nation overnight. Wind chills are predicted to drop to as low as -1F in Dallas, -20F in Chicago and -14F in Albuquerque.
+ The high temperature in Phoenix today didn't break 50 degrees, making it the coldest February day on record. And a hard freeze warning has been issued by the National Weather Service. It may be the first hard freeze in Phoenix history and temperatures might drop as low as 20 degrees.
+ About 500,000 people are without power in the Midwest and East, mostly due to downed power lines.
+ A Category 5 cyclone plowed into Queensland in Australia today. This is after record flooding last month.

Ain't February grand?

9am ET 2/2/11, WEDNESDAY
NO TRAVEL FOR YOU TODAY

Hey, things are looking up. No, not travel. That's worse today than yesterday's disaster. But consider:
+ The rodent in Pennsylvania did not see his shadow, so I think that means spring starts tomorrow.
+ Considering all of the cancellations--more than 9,000 yesterday at 21 airports east of the Rockies that I've been tracking and at least as many cancels today--there are surprisingly few people stranded at airports. It looks like travelers took the early warnings seriously.
+ You don't live in Northern Montana, where wind chills dropped below -50F last night and early this morning.
+ You all agree that Groundhog Day is a great (and pretty deep) flick.
+ Seriously, travel is improving in the South. Atlanta and Charlotte are running relatively well and even the Washington-area airports are doing okay.

On a down note, things have turned ugly in the last hour or so in Egypt. Pro-Mubarak "supporters" are attacking the peaceful anti-government protesters in Liberation Square. And it looks as if the Army has disappeared or been overwhelmed by the Mubarak "supporters." Al Jazeera continues live coverage, which you can stream here: http://english.aljazeera.net/watch_now/

11:30pm ET 2/1/11, TUESDAY
WHO CARES WHAT THE GROUNDHOG SAYS TOMORROW...

So I have this terrible thought: Punxsutawney Phil pops up out of his hole tomorrow, sees his shadow against a drifting mound of snow and declares six more months of winter.

It's no worse than what happened today: More than 9,300 takeoffs and landings cancelled (see chart) at 21 airports I tracked. O'Hare in Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth were north of 1,300 cancellations. St. Louis, which had 455 cancels, managed just 25 total takeoffs and landings all day.

Other lowlights? The airports in Tulsa and Kansas City closed for many hours today. Huge portions of Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis are still closed. Parts of Oklahoma and Missouri were hit with more than a foot of snow. Many parts of Interstate 80 in Iowa are closed. More than 100,000 people are without power in Greater Chicago and nearby Indiana.

There is now a raging blizzard in Chicago, with wind gusts as high as 60 miles an hour, lightning and ice pellets coming in off Lake Michigan. Some car commuters and bus riders have been stuck on Lake Shore Drive for more than five hours. And huge chunks of the roof have blown off Wrigley Field. It's so bad that Ernie Banks only wanted to play one today…

Wednesday's outlook? It could actually be as bad as the groundhog predicting six more months of snow. Ice and freezing rain are expected to coat most of the Interstate 95 Corridor from Boston to Washington while the blizzard continues in Chicago and large portions of the Midwest. More than 4,000 departures and arrivals on Wednesday have already been cancelled. Thousands more will eventually be dumped, too.

Chances are you're not going anywhere tomorrow. Deal with it. What else can you do?

Tomorrow night? How about 15 below in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest. And temperatures in the single digits for much of the East.

Oh, by the way, another big storm is shaping up for next week. Fun, huh?

8:30am ET 2/1/11, TUESDAY
TIME TO RETHINK YOUR WEEK

Look, no kidding, this storm is shaping up to be a monster. The airlines have already cancelled 2,000 flights today and more than 1,200 tomorrow. It's guaranteed that thousands more will be cancelled in the hours ahead.

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is closed due to snow and ice. There are ground stops or increasing delays in Houston, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia. Forecasts in the Chicago area are now calling for the most snow in the city's history (perhaps two feet), brutal blizzard conditions and potential lakefront flooding. It's snowing and icing in the I-95 Corridor on the East Coast and delays are beginning to pile up.

What more do I need to tell you? When Dallas/Fort Worth and O'Hare are getting hammered in the same day and when the East Coast airports are under siege you know the system is going to be stressed and overwhelmed for several days.

Unless you're traveling wholly West of the Rockies, in the deep South and Florida or are headed to Asia from Los Angeles or San Francisco, you've got real problems.

11am ET 1/31/11, MONDAY
THE SKY MAY ACTUALLY BE FALLING

Okay, folks, this weather thing is simply amazing. I mean, assuming you can keep a sense of humor about a schedule-destroying, week-wrecking weather system.

At least 30 states are now under some form of Winter Weather alert issued by the National Weather Service. And the Weather Channel, no stranger to ratchet-up-the-angst language, has gone far past yesterday's "colossal" storm. It is doing near-Apocalypse reporting. Temperatures nationwide are averaging about 15 degrees below normal.

Worst of all, we are already seeing delays. Bad weather of an assorted variety is slowing down the hubs in Minneapolis, Atlanta and Houston/Intercontinental. The across-the-board delays are not disastrous yet (about 30+ minutes), but it is an indication of what is coming.

Most carriers are now out with reaccommodation policies, the first of several I think they'll be forced to issue this week. The current ones focus on travel around the Midwest since as much as two feet of snow and ice are predicted for tomorrow. Here is where to find what is already posted and the list is updated as the policies are issued:

AirTran
http://www.airtran.com/weather/
Alaska
http://www.alaskaair.com/as/www2/flights/Weather-Advisory.asp
American
http://www.aa.com/viewPromotionDetails.do?fN=001_travelNotices.xml&_locale=en_US
Continental
http://www.continental.com/CMS/en-US/travel/news/Pages/travelnotices.aspx
Delta
http://www.delta.com/traveling_checkin/flight_status_updates/advisories/midwest_winter11/index.jsp
Frontier
http://www.frontierairlines.com/frontier/flight-info/weather.do
JetBlue
http://jetblue.com/JetblueAlerts/WeatherUpdate.aspx
US Airways
http://www.usairways.com/TravelCenter/Advisories.aspx
Southwest
http://www.southwest.com/html/travel_center/Winter_Weather.html
United
http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6867,52939,00.html

So what to do? Well, with travel disruptions predicted from as far west as Albuquerque to the Atlantic and from Maine to the South, I'd say bail on the week if you can. If you can't, make sure you've got back-up hotels in place.

And please remember: Since ice is predicted to be a large part of this storm, that will make access roads to/from airports a crapshoot. The airport might be open, the airlines might be attempting to run flights, but you might not be able to get there. So you might want to pack some extra undies in your carry-on bag and make sure you've got an extra battery for your mobile electronics.

And while I have your attention, some other news bits of note:
+ Believe it or not, our Australian friends are bracing for even worse weather. Two potential cyclones are bearing down on the Northeastern areas (Queensland, for example) where flooding has already caused death and disruption.
+ Egypt is now basically off-limits for commercial airlines, cruise ships and inbound travel of any sort. Several thousand travelers are now at Cairo airport looking for flights out and several nations are running charter flights to evacuate their nationals.
+ As the Egypt situation drags on, the business of tourism does come into play. Tourism contributes about 5 percent of the nation's GDP and tourism, obviously, has now all but disappeared. The longer protesters keep the country shut down, the higher the chance Mubarak is toppled simply because the economy could collapse.

Want some good news? I know the feeling. Here's the best news I can muster: I'm out of bad news.

7:30pm ET 1/30/11, SUNDAY
SCARY WORDS, SCARY STORY, TIME TO FLEE!

When the Weather Channel talks about a "colossal" winter storm this week that will blanket the country from the Rockies to Maine, you have three choices: flee; laugh; or start thinking about your travel plans.

While I wouldn't argue if you laughed or fled, I guess I suggest paying real close attention because this has the potential to play havoc with flight schedules nationwide.

In short, this thing is supposed to start Monday night. It might dump huge amounts of snow around the Midwest, including a foot or more in Chicago. Then it'll move East and torture the Boston-Washington Corridor because, you know, there isn't enough snow on the ground in cities like Philadelphia and New York.

Think you're off snow-free because you're flying through Dallas or Atlanta or any of the smaller Southern-tier hubs? Apparently not, because there's a prediction for lots of ice. And wind? Did I mention the wind that comes in behind the snow and ice? Or the plunging post-storm temperatures?

Yeah, it's apparently all coming. And not just the Weather Channel is predicting it. I did a couple of radio talk shows today in various parts of the country and heard the local meteorologists. They are all predicting local versions of Armageddon.

Now that I think about it, maybe flee IS the appropriate response. Just sayin' …

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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 © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.