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Historic Freeze Across U.S. Cancels 10 Percent of Domestic Flights

Jan 06, 2014 4:30 pm

Skift Take

In addition to frustration and hardship for travelers, the big freeze is going to adversely impact a lot of airlines’ bottom lines.

— Dennis Schaal

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Charles Rex Arbogast  / Associated Press

Commuters arrive at the La Salle Street commuter rail station as they experience temperatures well below zero and wind chills expected to reach 40 to 50 below, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press


Much of the country grappled Monday with a historic freeze that shuttered schools and businesses at the start of the first full work week of 2014. Flights, trains and bus transportation were disrupted, thousands were left without power and even parts of the country used to fending off hypothermia and frostbite had to take extra precautions as temperatures and wind chills approached record levels.

Regarding travel and the polar vortex:

Nearly 3,200 flights — one out of every 10 domestic departures — were canceled Monday morning, following a weekend of travel disruption across the country. The bulk of those cancellations were in Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Boston.

“It’s been one weather system after another,” said Delta Air Lines spokesman Morgan Durrant. “It’s been a challenging 72 hours.”

With wind chills as low as 45 below zero at some airports, workers could only remain exposed on the ramp for a few minutes. That made loading and unloading luggage a challenge.

American Airlines said temperatures are so cold at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that fuel and de-icing liquids were actually frozen. United Airlines said its fuel is pumping slower than normal in Chicago.

Passengers reported long lines at airports as they tried to rebook on other flights. United Airlines had so many phone calls that it was suggesting travelers use its website to rebook.

In recent years, airlines have cut the number of flights to ensure that most of their planes depart full. That’s been great for their bottom line but leaves very few empty seats to rebook stranded travelers. Sometimes, it takes days to get everybody where they should be.

GROUND TRAVEL DISRUPTED, TOO

Planes weren’t the only form of mass transportation disrupted by the historic freeze. There also were widespread delays and cancellations in ground transportation — including Amtrak, buses and commuter trains.

Officials with Chicago’s commuter rail, Metra, said there were multiple accidents, including one in which 14 passengers reported injuries — and six were taken to the hospital with minor injuries — after a train hit a “bumping post” at a downtown station. Spokesman Michael Gillis said the cause of the collision was under investigation but was due to the weather.

Weather-related engine problems forced an Amtrak train carrying 200 passengers to stop for more than 8 ½ hours in southwestern Michigan before arriving early Monday morning in Chicago. A spokesman said heat, lights and toilets continued to operate while crews tried to solve the problem. Spokesman Marc Magliari said it eventually was connected to another westbound train and arrived in Chicago around 1:30 a.m. CST.

And the Southern Illinois men’s basketball team spent the night on a church floor in central Illinois after their bus got stuck in a snowdrift on Interstate 57 following Sunday’s loss at Illinois State. A tow truck pulled the bus from the side the road around midnight — hours after they first ended up on the side of the road.

AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York and Associated Press Writers Ashley M. Heher in Chicago, Kelly P. Kissel in Oklahoma City and Rick Callahan and Jeni O’Malley in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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