Skift Take

The seriousness of the situation is apparent to travelers currently stranded or planning alternate travel. The widespread cancellations, delays, and closure are reminiscent of the shutdown following the 9/11 attacks.

Airlines have scrapped more than one in seven U.S. flights because of Hurricane Sandy as travel disruptions from the Atlantic’s largest tropical storm rival the toll from recent blizzards.

Sandy grounded 15 percent of U.S. flights from Oct. 27 through late yesterday, according to data compiled by industry researcher FlightStats. Among weather events since 2005, that ranked second only to the 16 percent cancellation rate for a December 2010 New York snowstorm, the data show.

Cancellations keep planes and people out of harm’s way when winds, rain and snow threaten air traffic, and let airlines position jets to restart flights quickly once the danger passes. Carriers scrubbed about 16 percent of today’s trips before Sandy’s landfall, data tracker FlightAware said yesterday.

“They say, ‘we’re going to stop where we are, wait for this thing to pass and see how it goes,’” said Michael Boyd, president of aviation consultant Boyd Group International Inc. “Consumers have to realize that when you book an airline ticket, you’re taking some responsibility for the fact that weather happens.”

Wind-lashed airports from Washington to Boston remained idled as United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines swept East Coast flights off their timetables. Delta is using hubs at Atlanta, Detroit and Cincinnati to stage planes that had been bound for New York.

Airports Close

Floodwaters at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport forced it to close late yesterday until further notice, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey also shut the region’s two other major airports, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International and New York’s LaGuardia.

Counting yesterday’s disruptions, airlines are flying about 12,500 fewer trips than they had planned in the 48 hours ending today, according to Houston-based FlightAware. US Airways Group Inc.’s cancellations yesterday were more than half its daily operations, and shutdowns today include Boston, New York, Washington and its Philadelphia hub.

Sandy’s toll is already greater than Hurricane Irene’s in August 2011, when that storm took aim at New York and triggered flight cutbacks along the East Coast. Over six days, airlines cut 8.5 percent of their flights, based on the data from Portland, Oregon-based FlightStats.

Cancellation rate

The cancellation rate for Hurricane Sandy so far has topped the 13 percent for a January 2011 ice storm that hammered the U.S. Southeast, including Delta’s Atlanta hub; the 10 percent for a February 2010 storm across much of the northern U.S.; and the 5.4 percent from the 2007 Valentine’s Day ice storm that crippled JetBlue Airways Corp.’s operations, the data showed.

By volume, the Sandy-related cancellations were still short of the 22,441 that FlightStats tallied for the February 2010 storm. Those were amassed over a 10-day period.

In Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, Delta’s flight pullback stranded Alia Hagenbach, 34, and Kathi Denfeld, 37, as they tried to get home to Redmond, Oregon, after attending a conference.

“We were looking at Delta’s website and it’s saying the flight is ready to go and will be on time,” Hagenbach said. “Then the Weather Channel shows this swirling vortex of terror right over us and the governor is saying don’t go outside.”

Chicago fallout

Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the nation’s second-busiest for passenger traffic behind Atlanta’s Hartsfield, had more than 450 flights scrapped yesterday as Sandy cut off the East Coast from the rest of the travel grid. More than 100 were dropped at Midway airport, a base for Southwest Airlines Co.

U.S. airlines’ revenue loss from Sandy probably will be $100 million, according to consultant Boyd, who is based in Evergreen, Colorado.

“It will be a huge hit, no question about it,” he said in an interview.

JetBlue, which has its largest base at New York’s Kennedy, confronts a challenge in resuming flights because of the flooding there.

“Airport infrastructure must be operational before we even think about starting operations up again,” Mateo Lleras, a JetBlue spokesman, said before Kennedy’s shutdown. “Public transportation is a close second. We have to be able to get our crew members to the airport.”

The New York-based carrier canceled 1,200 flights from Oct. 28 through tomorrow morning and suspended operations at the New York airports and Boston, cities that are touched by 70 percent of its flights, Lleras said.

Those markets, along with Washington and Philadelphia, were a focus of cancellations by United, Delta, American, Southwest and US Airways. Fort Worth, Texas-based American said it was possible that its pullback may extend beyond tomorrow.

Conditions permitting, Chicago-based United said it hopes to resume flights to New York this afternoon and to Dulles tonight.

Delta expects “limited flying” to resume at some airports this afternoon, said Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based carrier.

With assistance from Mathieu Rosemain in Paris, Alex Webb in Frankfurt, Christopher Jasper in London, Brian K. Sullivan in Boston, Alan Levin in Washington, Mike Millard in Seattle and James Langford in New York. Editors: Ed Dufner, Ben Livese. To contact the reporters on this story: Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at [email protected]; Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta at [email protected]; Victoria Stilwell in New York at [email protected]. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at [email protected].

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