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Canceled flights piling up with Northeast snow

FILE - A traveler watches the departing board at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, NJ. ( (AP Photo/Joe Epstein))
January 12, 2011 2:49:26 PM PST
Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights on Wednesday, mostly in the snowy Northeast, but they said travelers won't be stuck for days as they were after a Christmas weekend storm.

It will be easier to put stranded passengers on later flights, which aren't as full as they were during the holidays, according to the airlines.

Travel in and out of New York, the nation's busiest airspace, was very limited until Wednesday afternoon. Officials at the region's three major airports said more than 1,700 flights were canceled, or about half the number that usually fly from there.

New York also accounted for half the nation's 3,400 cancelations, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. By late in the day flights were picking up at New York's LaGuardia, and airlines were even talking of adding extra planes to help stranded passengers.

American and Southwest canceled all flights into Boston's Logan Airport until Wednesday night.

"Basically we're going to write off the day" in Boston, where only one runway was open and conditions allowed for just "fair braking," said American spokesman Ed Martelle. In all, American and its regional affiliate, American Eagle, scrubbed 420 flights.

Delta decided late Tuesday to cancel more than 1,000 flights on Wednesday - about one-fifth of its schedule. In recent years, airlines have increasingly canceled flights early to prevent travelers from reaching the airport only to discover that their flight has been grounded.

Continental Airlines, which has a hub in Newark, N.J., canceled 485 flights, United Airlines dropped 180, and JetBlue Airways canceled 275. Southwest scrubbed 231 flights - everything before 5 p.m. into Boston, Manchester, N.H., Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn. The Hartford airport was open but closed periodically to clear snow from the main runway.

The ripple effect from weather problems spread across the country. At San Francisco International, most morning flights to the East Coast were halted. This week's mess in Atlanta snarled air service out of Minneapolis, where Atlanta-based Delta carries nearly 80 percent of passenger traffic.

"We had a couple of days when very few flights were able to make it to or from Atlanta," said Minneapolis airport spokesman Patrick Hogan. "It's been a tough week for flying anywhere to or from the East Coast."

Delta expected to operate about 85 percent of its Atlanta schedule Wednesday. That counted as progress, coming two days after snow shut down Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport.

Delays that linger long after the snow stops falling aren't limited to the southeastern U.S. Last month, London's Heathrow Airport took nearly a week to completely recover after a few inches of snow fell. Virgin Atlantic Airways is protesting by withholding payments to airport operator BAA Ltd.

With so many canceled flights, stranded U.S. travelers were going to airline websites and calling travel agents to rebook on later flights. Airlines reported heavy phone call loads at reservation centers.

Some, including United and Continental, automatically rebooked passengers on the next open flight, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for those two airlines.

The late December blizzard shut down New York and Boston airports and led to more than 10,000 canceled flights, and it took several days for many passengers to get home because there were few empty seats on later flights. Airlines are confident things will be better this time.

"We're in the early-January trough - travel isn't as heavy as it is around Christmas," said Martelle, the American spokesman. "It should be easier to get people on planes sooner."

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