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Monday, December 27, 2010

Northeast Winter Storm Could Strand Air Passengers for Days


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An East Coast blizzard that has forced nearly 7,000 flight cancelations will leave many travelers stranded through the end of the week.
Runways were expected to reopen Monday evening at several major airports in the Northeast. But canceled flights into and out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston left hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for a way home. The storm and its aftermath could end up costing the airlines $100 million, one analyst predicted.
The challenge for the airlines goes beyond weather. Flights are usually full this time of year, making it difficult to rebook travelers affected by a cancellation. Seats are even more scarce than in past years because the airline industry has reduced the number of flights and grounded planes to save money and drive up prices.
The paralyzing storm in the Northeast comes a week after several inches of snow shut down London's Heathrow Airport and left travelers sleeping on terminal floors. It took five days for Europe's busiest hub airport to resume normal operations.
By afternoon, major U.S. airlines had announced more than 3,100 canceled flights for Monday. Continental, whose hub in Newark, N.J., was shut down by the storm, scrubbed 800 flights and Delta dropped 700.
That came on top of at least 3,800 cancellations Sunday, according to figures the airlines provided to The Associated Press.
Once the snow is removed and the runways are open, the big job for the airlines will be helping crowds of stranded passengers find room on a limited number of flights. Many had decamped in the terminals because they couldn't find or get to hotel rooms.
In the best of times, it might take airlines two or three days to accommodate all those travelers on later flights. But this week could prove much more challenging. Planes were expected to be about 90 percent full during the week between Christmas and New Year's, leaving fewer available seats than usual.
Airlines generally assume no obligation to pay for hotels or meals if passengers are delayed by weather. However, most airlines will allow passengers to get a refund for canceled or severely delayed flights.
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