Passenger Outrage Rises as Winter Storm Snarls U.S. Travel
By Mary Schlangenstein and Nancy Moran - Dec 28, 2010 11:23 PM
Anger mounted over passengers stranded on airport tarmacs and in terminals as flight delays threatened to stretch into the weekend following the worst December snowstorm to hit New York City in six decades.
As many as 1.2 million airline customers may have been affected by almost 8,000 flight cancellations as the storm that hit three days ago closed major airports. Passengers were forced to try to make new plans, sometimes without being able to reach airlines by phone or online for help.
“There’s a haphazard strategy to how airlines address these issues,” said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. “That’s why passengers get so angry. It’s not about the weather. It’s about how airlines communicate after weather occurs.”
The disruptions affected the nation’s largest and most- congested air travel market during one of the busiest times of the year. With planes already flying at their fullest since World War II, carriers were struggling to find empty seats to rebook travelers.
Sara Schaefer, a 27-year-old psychology student from Munich, said she arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport yesterday to find her American Eagle flight to Norfolk, Virginia, wouldn’t be taking off because three of the four runways were closed and “little planes” were canceled.
“I called the airline and they said it’s mother earth and out of our control,” said Schaefer, who traveled to the U.S. with her fiancé on Christmas Day. She returned to Manhattan last night to catch a bus slated to arrive in Norfolk at 6 a.m. today.
The U.S. Transportation Department is looking into details of the New York flight delays and will review other cases, Olivia Alair, an agency spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was being updated on the crisis.
LaHood, who helped push through a regulation allowing domestic carriers to be fined for tarmac delays of more than three hours, made no public comments. International flights aren’t covered by the rule.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major airports in metropolitan New York, pointed the finger at the airlines after at least six international flights were stuck on the tarmac at Kennedy airport with passengers aboard because they had no gates to use.
“It is an airline’s responsibility to make sure before they leave their point of origin to make sure that they have a gate assignment,” said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman. “These airlines did not. So they got to the airport and had no place to dock.”
Passengers on a Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. flight were stuck on the tarmac at Kennedy for nearly 12 hours yesterday as they waited for a gate. Four other services operated by the carrier were also stranded for more than four hours, Cathay said in a statement today apologizing for delays. More than 1,100 people were onboard the five flights, it said. A British Airways Plc plane with 316 people onboard waited for nearly eight hours.
“These people should put in a bit more effort,” Kathy Kia, 31, said of the airlines. Kia was stuck at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Dec. 27 when her flight to LaGuardia was canceled. She was told she couldn’t be guaranteed a seat until Dec. 31, and placed on standby for an American Airlines flight yesterday.
Other passengers complained about spending 90 minutes on hold before reaching reservations agents, or not being able to get an answer at all. AMR Corp.’s American and US Airways Group Inc. added agents to field calls or put workers on mandatory overtime.
Carriers struggled once the snow stopped to relocate aircraft and crews while factoring in airport employees unable to travel to work after New York’s heaviest December snowfall since 1948 hampered local train service.
Some New York subway lines remained partially blocked yesterday, streets waited to be cleared of snow and stranded vehicles and numerous bus routes remained suspended.
The bulk of subway lines are now operating, said Jeremy Soffin, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman. Two- hundred plows, salt spreaders and other trucks are working on clearing roads and 110 trucks are being used to move abandoned cars.
Amtrak planned to resume normal service between Boston, New York and Washington today, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday from the railroad.
Metro-North commuter trains will return to weekday service today, including previously planned holiday week schedule changes, the MTA said in a statement. New Jersey Transit plans to resume normal operations on most rail and bus lines today.
‘Everything They Can’
By pre-canceling flights ahead of the storm, airlines were able to avoid stranding planes and crews in shuttered airports, which kept cancellations from rippling through the rest of their route systems, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers.
“What can airlines do better?” asked Michael Boyd, president of aviation consultant Boyd Group International Inc. in Evergreen, Colorado. “They’re doing everything they can. If you weren’t going to or from the East Coast, it didn’t affect you.”
Most of the passenger backlog will be cleared by tonight, Boyd predicted.
Airlines have culled airplanes from their fleets and cut capacity during the past two years to reduce costs and better match supply to demand that collapsed during the recession. As a result, carriers have few spare planes to put into service. The volume of holiday travel poses an additional obstacle.
“Many flights during the holidays are at 100 percent load factor,” David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas, said of the average number of occupied seats. “This means the airlines’ ability to accommodate travelers from canceled flights is greatly diminished.”
Swierenga estimated the largest U.S. airlines, which may have combined profits of more than $3 billion this year, will suffer a revenue loss of about $150 million from the storm. That’s based on an assumed average round-trip fare of $300 and 150 passengers per plane, with about half of affected passengers rebooking flights, he said.
Continental Airlines added extra flights from Newark and operated some routes with larger aircraft to move more passengers. Delta Air Lines Inc., based in Atlanta, also added an unspecified number of flights.
“We have a robust recovery program in effect that is re- accommodating customers at the highest possible rate based on all the resources we have available,” said Christen David, a spokeswoman for Continental, a unit of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc.
A spokesman for Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, whose passengers on Flight 888 from Vancouver sat on the tarmac at Kennedy airport for almost 12 hours yesterday, said flights were dispatched under the belief that gates would be available.
Upon arrival, “there were no gates available and our options were limited,” said the spokesman, Gus Whitcomb. “Unfortunately, we ended up with passengers on airplanes for far too long before we were able to get them to the gates.”
Staff with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent the morning seeking gates where the planes could dock, even though that isn’t the agency’s responsibility, said Coleman, the agency’s spokesman.
Saul Tejada, a limousine driver, was waiting at 8:30 p.m. on an airline passenger who had been stuck on the tarmac since about 2:30 p.m.
“Every plane seems to be awaiting a gate,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re low on manpower or what, but this is ridiculous.”
“It’s rough, but if we tell them we’re going to be here, we’re going to be here,” he said. Fifteen minutes later, Tejada received a text message from the passenger saying that she was about to get off her plane.
To contact the reporters on this story: Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at firstname.lastname@example.org; Nancy Moran in New York at email@example.com