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THE BOXING DAY BLIZZARD IN THE EAST
By Joe Brancatelli
Here's the latest news since our newsletter was published on Friday morning. I will update this information as required.
11pm ET 12/29/10, WEDNESDAY
'HAPPY DAYS' ARE HERE AGAIN
This is what passes for victory in the New York area these days: There were only about 500 cancellations at LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark today. Ninety-six hours after the Boxing Day Blizzard began, however, the contours of the crisis have come into sharper focus:
+ About 9,500 flights were cancelled since Saturday, Christmas Day. That means about one million passengers didn't fly. It'll take days to reaccommodate them all. Many won't get to their destinations until after the New Year.
+ Besides the cancellations, a large number of flights were diverted. A Delta Air Lines flight from London/Heathrow found itself in Minneapolis. A Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong ended up in Toronto. A Continental flight from Delhi ended up in Cleveland.
+ At least a half-dozen flights spent the night on the runways or tarmacs at Kennedy Airport. Flights operated by British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Aeromexico, Icelandair and Cathay Pacific spent upwards of 12 hours waiting to disembark. The Port Authority blamed the airlines for operating the flights without knowing if gate space would be available. It also blamed the delays on the fact that Customs agents went home while planes were still on the runway awaiting a gate.
+ Despite its claims to the contrary, the Port Authority has done an atrocious job cleaning up the airports. The airports are still overloaded with snow and one airline executive told me planes were parked overnight on what should have been an active runway at JFK. Of course, it's hard to explain exactly what has happened during the storm. New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, finally admitted Wednesday that the city was doing an equally atrocious job plowing New York's streets. And many New Jersey municipalities remained buried in snow.
+ Travelers were justifiably critical of how few employees were working at the airlines' calling centers. After severe layoffs in recent years, the call centers were overloaded. Passengers hoping to rebook their cancelled flights were often kept on hold for hours--or couldn't even reach their carrier. Many airline phone systems hung up on passengers, claiming the customer couldn't be helped because the call volume was too high.
2:30pm ET 12/28/10, TUESDAY
WINDS AND CANCELLATIONS ARE BACK
Conditions continue to be brutal for flying in the East in general and the New York Metropolitan Area in specific.
The three major New York area airports opened last evening after about 24 hours of closures. Some flights got out this morning, but higher-than-normal winds have returned and delays and cancellations are piling up again. About 1,000 flights have already been chopped today and that is exacerbating an already difficult situation. About 4,500 flights were dumped on Sunday and Monday and there are scores of travelers hoping for reaccommodation.
One example: Continental Airlines' flights between its Newark and Houston hubs. Three of the first six flights from Newark today have been cancelled. Two operated with some delays. The sixth, scheduled to go at 1:50pm local time today, is still waiting for an inbound aircraft and shows a 3:30pm departure. The flight, a Boeing 737-700, is full in both first and coach and Continental's Web site is showing more than 150 standbys hoping for a seat.
Continental's Web site is also showing the "average" delay at Newark today is--wait for it--462 minutes.
Philadelphia and Boston are doing better, but not great. There are plenty of cancellations and delays there, too.
Bottom line: If you're not already booked to or from the East this week, you won't find a seat. And given the continued cancellations, your chances of actually flying are a lot slimmer than normal. And if you're hoping for an empty seat to open, lots of luck.
Also worth noting: At least two incoming international flights into JFK spent an overnight on the tarmac in the last 48 hours with a full load of passengers. The flights--one British Airways, one Aeromexico--either couldn't get a gate or couldn't disembark because Customs agents had gone home. Details continue to be sketchy on exact causes. And the Port Authority, which operates JFK, seems oblivious to the problems. (As you know, international flights are not covered by the new three-hour-maximum tarmac-hold rule.)
My best advice: If you can, avoid trying to fly to or from the East for the rest of the week. Try again in the new year, when the passenger backlog will have eased and the weather is forecast to be near 50 degrees.
9:30pm ET 12/26/10, SUNDAY
AN HONEST-TO-GOODNESS BLIZZARD
The Boxing Day Blizzard is on in the East. All three Metro New York airports are effectively closed. Newark and Kennedy are officially closed. LaGuardia is technically open, but virtually all flights have been cancelled and there are few people around.
Philadelphia and Boston are in slightly better shape, which isn't saying much. Surprisingly, though, the three Metro Washington area airports--National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington--have operated throughout the day.
The airlines have cancelled thousands of flights today and tomorrow. If you possibly can avoid flying into or out of the East Coast, do it. And if you think this is just a regional issue, think again. So much traffic heads to/goes through/departs from the East that these delays and cancellations are cascading through the system. The national delay map at FlightStats.com is pockmarked with yellow (long) and red (excessive) delay symbols.
Amtrak has cancelled its service between New York and Boston. The roads are in bad shape and even public transportation is operating at severely reduced levels. States of emergency have been declared in Massachusetts and Virginia; North Carolina officials have asked drivers to stay off the state's ice-slicked roads.
Further south, the Charlotte and Atlanta hubs are now open and operating, but with significant delays and cancellations.
Perhaps worst of all, today's blizzard--and we are talking the real definition of blizzard: high winds, blowing snow and near-zero visibility--have blown out most of the flights between Europe and the East Coast gateways. That means there are travelers who were expecting to get to the United States after last week's weather problems in Europe who have now been cancelled once again because of the problems today in the East.
Biggest losers: The approximately 300 passengers on US Airways Flight 723 on Christmas Eve. It was scheduled to depart from Dublin at 11:05am local time for Philadelphia. Passengers weren't boarded until 1pm and then the plane spent almost seven hours of the tarmac. The flight was actually cancelled about 5pm, but it took almost three hours to get the jetway door open so passengers could disembark the aircraft.
Bottom line: Tomorrow will also be awful if your itinerary includes the Northeast. The blizzard warning from the National Weather Service extends until 6pm Monday and airlines will surely be forced to cancel hordes more flights. That will also guarantee that it will be at least Thursday before the carriers can get planes and crews properly repositioned for normal operations.
2:30am ET 12/26/10, SUNDAY
A BAD BOXING DAY IN THE SKY
A winter storm that gave parts of the Southeast their first White Christmas in decades--or ever!--is now moving north in a hurry. The weather boys are calling for blizzard conditions and upwards of a foot of snow from Washington to Maine.
This is all due to start early this morning, worsen during the afternoon and last well into Monday morning. And airlines have already preemptively canceled hundreds of flights at their hubs. Delta canceled 500 flights on Christmas Day. United and Continental combined have already cancelled about 300 for today. More airlines will surely begin canceling flights in the coming hours. Those that will operate are sure to be delayed.
Bottom line: Sunday is going to be a miserable travel day along the East Coast and, naturally, those problems will cascade through the system. Monday will likely be pretty awful, too. (By the way, standard winter travel protocols apply: Know your airport lodging options before you head for the airport. Get yourself down to carry-on weight so you and your clothing won't be separated. And remember that airport-access roads and highways in storm conditions are often more dangerous than flying.)
If you don't have to fly, don't. If you do have to fly, expect the worst. And don't expect the system to get back to normal until at least Wednesday.
Needless to say, check with your carrier before traveling. Keep tuned to the Weather Channel on TV or your favored online weather sources. And, as always, I recommend you cross-check your flight information with FlightStats.com.
7:30am ET 12/25/10, SATURDAY
CANCELLATIONS ON CHRISTMAS
Good morning and Merry Christmas! I know we all have better things to do, but I thought it important to give you the briefest of updates on travel conditions in the U.S. East and in Europe.
Delta Air Lines has already proactively cancelled 500 flights today, more than half of them at its super-sized hub in Atlanta. It's below freezing there and local sources are predicting the first White Christmas in Atlanta since the Chester Arthur administration. And if you can remember Chester Arthur, you have been on the road wa-a-a-ay too long. Either way, if you are booked on Delta today, check before going to the airport. If you're booked on Delta tomorrow, check, too, because mass cancellations like this tend to have a knock-on effect.
Elsewhere in the East and South, two regions bracing for a possibly large winter storm, things are moving fairly normally.
In Europe, all of the major hubs are working, but bad weather yesterday led to the cancellation of about 23 percent of flights. That's actually the highest one-day total since this crisis began a week ago. Paris/CDG has been the hardest hit--and it was compounded when Terminal 2E was evacuated. As you recall, that terminal suffered a roof collapse in 2004. The snow-buildup on that repaired roof worried CDG officials, so they evacuated. That further complicated things for several thousand flyers waiting out cancellations.
Today's bad weather in delaying flights substantially around Europe, especially at smaller airports in France and Germany. Go with caution.
That's it. You may now return to your previously scheduled holiday revelries.
10am ET 12/24/10, FRIDAY
AND NOW, THE EAST'S DEEP FREEZE
I have no tidings of joy on this Christmas Eve. But you'll want to know this information since so many of you will be traveling, mostly for leisure and family reasons, in the next few days. U.S. carriers have posted waivers for airports in the Northeast between December 25 and December 27. Some waivers extend through the Southeast, too.
A major winter storm (the East Coast snow variety of the heavy rains that walloped California earlier this week) may seriously impact flights. I haven't noticed airlines canceling flights yet. But be aware that they will almost certainly act proactively. They'll cancel first and sort out the details later if they think the weather will cause long delays. No carrier wants the cable-news outlets showing film of stranded travelers in its hub on Christmas Day weekend. They will cancel flights early and often and urge you to stay away from the airport if they sense really disruptive weather is on the way.
I know many of you are planning getaways in the next few days thanks to those uber-cheap holiday business-class fares to Europe. I urge you to watch the weather and, most importantly, check your carriers' actions carefully. It could be a rough ride--and Rudolph with his nose so bright will be timed out after Christmas Eve. He won't be guiding many sleighs (or aircraft) if this storm hits the East hard.
Also, to scroll back to Europe. Another day of snow is pounding parts of the continent. There have been long delays, many cancellations and a few outright airport closures in Paris, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Vienna, Geneva and many smaller airports throughout Western and Central Europe. The major hubs--Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam--are running, but if you've got a connecting flight, you've got troubles. (For earlier details on Europe's deep freeze, click here.)
This will only compound the troubles the airports have been having reaccommodating the hundreds of thousands of flyers stranded earlier in the week. Especially in Britain, there are still travelers waiting for flights. Heathrow does seem to be up and running at nearly full capacity today, however.
Who was it that was dreaming of a White Christmas? Damn that Irving Berlin…
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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 © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.