New storm: Airlines slash flights to New York

NEW YORK — Major airlines scrapped flights in and out of the New York area Wednesday as the region was socked with the second significant storm in little more than a week.

United and American suspended operations in the region by afternoon, as white-out conditions developed. Other airlines have cancelled flights too. All are encouraging passengers to reschedule are allowing them to do it for free.

Airlines are quick to cancel flights ahead of major storms to avoid stranding aircraft and crews. Doing so also lessens storm-related financial losses. As of 4 p.m. Eastern, about 1,300 U.S. flights had been canceled on Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. About 40 percent of those are at Newark Liberty International Airport — which was also the hardest hit with Superstorm Sandy last Monday. Most of those cancellations were made well before the first snowflake fell.

Sandy caused more than 20,000 flight cancellations, making it the second-most disruptive storm in the last seven years. The latest storm is weaker than Sandy but still carries high winds, a mix of rain and snow and the potential for more flooding. Sandy flooded some airport runways.

Wednesday’s storm, with blowing snow and fog, at times limited visibility. Making matters worse, Sandy damaged some navigational aids at New York’s airports. It wasn’t clear if those systems, which are critical to safe takeoffs and landings in bad weather, had been completely fixed. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — which runs the region’s three airports — and the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t return calls seeking comment.

United, the world’s largest airline, suspended most service in New York starting at noon. It warns that the bad weather will likely cause more delays and cancellations throughout the Northeast.

American Airlines shut down in New York at 3 p.m. It stopped flights to and from Philadelphia at noon.

Most other airlines, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., are asking passengers to reschedule Northeast flights to a later date. They’re waiving the usual change fees of up to $150. But customers don’t have a lot of time: Most waivers only allow passengers to reschedule within a week. That’s in part because the busy Thanksgiving travel season is approaching, and airlines are eager to clear the traveler backlog.

JetBlue, which is the biggest domestic airline at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, said its operations had just gotten back to normal Monday after Sandy.

There’s a dollars-and-cents reason that airlines cancel big swaths of their schedules well ahead of bad weather. Cancellations aren’t as expensive for airlines as some might think.

Most passengers eventually reschedule, so the airline still collects the fare. And if flights are canceled, the airline doesn’t have to pay the crew or the cost of burning fuel. Pilots and flight attendants only get paid once the main cabin doors close.

Many passengers on canceled flights are often squeezed onto another flight, which improves the airline’s efficiency.

Airlines also are not required to pay for hotel rooms, food or other expenses for passengers stuck overnight due to the weather, as many stranded by Sandy learned to their dismay.

Surges from the current storm along the coasts of New Jersey and New York are expected to reach perhaps 3 feet, only a fraction of what Sandy caused. High winds, which may gust to 65 mph, could extend inland throughout the day, potentially hampering power restoration efforts or causing more outages.

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