Airlines hastily canceled flights in the Northeast Sunday as Hurricane Sandy moved up the coast. The massive storm threatens to bring a near halt to air travel for at least two days in a key region for both domestic and international flights.
Major carriers such as American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta planned Sunday night to cancel all flights into and out of three area airports in New York, the nation’s busiest airspace. Delays rippled across the U.S. and the Atlantic, affecting travelers in cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Paris.
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Cancellations are mounting. According to the flight-tracking service FlightAware, more than 6,800 flights had been canceled for Sunday and Monday as of Sunday evening. Both Philadelphia International Airport and Newark International Airport, a hub for United Airlines, each had more than 1,200 cancellations for the two days.
At New York’s LaGuardia on Sunday, crowds filled the American Airlines terminal near midday, with families sitting on the floor waiting for a flight out — any flight out. A few travelers were sitting at a bar having a beer, watching football. Others nervously paced before flight information boards showing canceled flights, hoping their flight wouldn’t be added to that list. It was almost double the normal crowd. Travelers were calm, but anxious.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs five airports in the area, said it expects all carriers to cease operations Sunday night. It advised passengers to check with their carriers before heading to the airport.
Passengers on Sunday were reporting multi-hour wait times at airline call centers.
Eileen Merberg, 50, was booked on a United flight from her home in Rochester, N.Y. to New Orleans, connecting at Washington D.C.’s Dulles airport.
First, the airline sent her an automated message via email saying that her Washington flight was canceled and that she had been rebooked on a flight through Newark. About an hour later that flight was canceled. Another email informed her she was rebooked through Chicago.
By that point, she already had told the higher education conference that she was scheduled to speak at that she wouldn’t be coming. She tried to cancel her flight but United’s phone lines were jammed. First she waited 62 minutes before her phone battery died. After recharging, she then spent 45 minutes on hold before a recording told her it would be at least another hour before a customer service employee would be available.
“Then I hung up,” Merberg said.
Sandy is expected to make landfall Monday, likely in New Jersey. Already, nearly 5,600 flights have been canceled, more than 2,500 of those at Newark, LaGuardia Kennedy airports, according to FlightAware.
A spokesman for United Airlines parent United Continental Holdings Inc. said the carrier has suspended an unspecified number of flights to New York and Washington-area airports beginning Sunday evening with plans to resume Tuesday as conditions permit.
JetBlue Airways Corp., which flies out of JFK, said it has canceled more than 1,000 flights from Sunday through Wednesday morning.
American Airlines and American Eagle canceled 140 flights Sunday and canceled another 1,431 flights Monday through Wednesday due to Hurricane Sandy, the company said.
US Airways said it had suspended all operations at the three New York airports Sunday evening and Monday and at Philadelphia and Washington on Monday.
Disruptions on the East Coast of the U.S. also impact international carriers. Air France has canceled four Monday flights into JFK and two departures. Lufthansa canceled three flights to the Northeast and one flight out of Newark.
Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 75 mph as of Sunday afternoon, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began churning up the Eastern Seaboard. It was expected to hook left toward the mid-Atlantic coast and come ashore late Monday or early Tuesday, most likely in New Jersey, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic. Experts say the rare hybrid storm that results will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.
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