By Justin Bachman
Hurricane Sandy led airlines to cancel nearly 20,000 flights in the past four days and park unused planes at airports safe from the brunt of the storm. Early action helped avoid an airport version of Woodstock: During the hurricane, there were no hordes of hungry, weary travelers camped in front of Brookstone shops.
Sandy was the rare case in which U.S. airlines managed to avert mass customer ire. Airlines “were able to put the planes and the passengers out of harm’s way and ensure that people could stay home and not at the airport,” says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the U.S. airlines’ lobbying group. Not all was rosy, however, as nervous people with vacation plans knew as early as Oct. 25 that their flights might be canceled and still had a tough time rescheduling.
Several travel agents say airlines were not prepared on Friday and early Saturday to begin canceling flights and to rebook passengers. Trying to plan new flights ahead of the airlines’ Sandy cancellations proved frustrating and left several clients in a bind, says Heather Dolstra, vice president of Democracy Travel in Washington, D.C.
“The passengers are caught between a rock and a hard place because they are caught entirely at the whim of what the airline decides to do” with cancellations, Dolstra says. She gives the companies’ rescheduling policies a “D,” calling them far too restrictive for most passengers.
Vicky Mary, president of Victoria Travel in Cincinnati, says she began calling Delta Air Lines (DAL) at 8 a.m. Saturday to try and change flights but had to wait until the afternoon to get the help she needed. “What we know is that you don’t always accept the first thing that an airline tells you,” she says. Her Sandy grade for Delta: “A-minus.”
Most Northeast airports outside the New York metro area began to resume normal operations on Wednesday, and a smattering of flights began landing at Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy International. LaGuardia Airport, the closest major airport to Manhattan, remained closed after several feet of water covered the airfield, which is adjacent to Flushing Bay. Airlines expect to return some service to LaGuardia on Nov. 1, although equipment inspections and repairs may cause further delays.
Eric Norberg, president of the New York City Business Travel Association and an executive with Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Stamford, Conn., says many travelers with business in the New York area this week “just said ‘forget it’” over the weekend and moved or canceled their trips.
Airlines canceled 2,870 flights due to Hurricane Sandy on Wednesday, down from 7,074 on Tuesday, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based flight-tracking company. Collectively, the Sandy-related scrubbed flights totaled 19,500 from Sunday through Wednesday evening.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea of the magnitude,” Norberg said from an Albany (N.Y.) airport as he awaited a flight to Detroit en route to a 10-day vacation in Europe, far from Sandy’s destruction.