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Tribune Media Services
updated 12/29/2010 1:02:47 PM ET 2010-12-29T18:02:47

I thought we’d dodged the bullet.

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Not only was our flight from JFK to the Caribbean two days after the blizzard that crippled the Northeast, but according to the American Airlines website at 6 a.m. Tuesday, it was on time and had been assigned a gate.

Story: N.Y.-area airports running (mostly) on time Story: Stuck on the tarmac: Headaches begin at landing

We were headed to the tiny island of Grand Turk and Bohio Resort for some scuba diving. Turks and Caicos is known for their spectacular reefs and my daughter Mel had been diligently completing the required online course and hoped to join us as certified divers this trip.

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But I was celebrating too soon. Just before we arrived at Kennedy, I got a message from American Airlines that our flight had been cancelled. (Why we didn’t get the message four hours ahead, as we’d requested, I don’t know).

JFK was a mess. Two days after the blizzard struck and a day after the snow ended, unplowed snow and slush piled up in the gutters of the departure lane. Inside, stranded travelers were were still dozing on cots. There were long lines everywhere but no one from either the airline or the airport directing the traffic. Without a lot of questions it was impossible to tell which line to enter. There were hundreds of people in line for "rescheduled flights" but only three agents at the counter.

Video: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess (on this page)

That’s because airline staff couldn’t get through the snow to the airport, explained American Airlines spokesman Edward Martelle, when I reached him several hours later. At the same time, American had canceled nearly 1,300 flights in the past three days and getting passengers and planes moving again after a monster snow storm is no easy task — especially when so many senior people are on vacation, Martelle acknowledged.

Timing couldn’t have been worse with heavily booked holiday flights, senior staff on vacation and a monster storm that derailed all travel- subway, bus, commuter railroad, especially in New York . “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in a two day period,” Martelle said.

Reservations reported that call volume was up 220 percent. “We’re sorry,” Martelle said. “Passengers have to be patient” (which is almost word-for-word what a testy Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference when reporters asked why so many streets were still unplowed).

Slideshow: The East Coast digs out (on this page)

It's not that easy to "be patient" when you feel powerless — and trapped by an ineffective system offering little to no information to deal with.

“We waited on one line for hours only to be told to go to another line,” Meihua Chen, a graduate student trying to get home to Taiwan from the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “It’s like being in a disaster movie.” She and her two companions had been trying to get to the West Coast for two days to catch a flight home to Hong Kong.

I waited in a line that went nowhere for more than an hour while on hold with American Airlines only to be told we couldn’t get out of New York until Saturday. Unless that changes, we’ll have to cancel the trip.

Interactive: Top travel stories of 2010 (on this page)

Everyone around us had similar tales of woe. “This should be a happy holiday but it is our first trip to the U.S. and a really bad memory,” sighed Livia Sui.

I met families who had been waiting overnight just for a flight to Orlando and others trying to get to the West Coast to connect to Australia and Asia. “No one seems to have very good information,” said Brazilian Marcio Guth, trying to get to Los Angeles with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.

That’s an understatement. I can understand the logistical nightmare this storm presented. I can understand the airlines’ difficulty grappling with the situation. I can appreciate the quagmire of the monster storm hitting at a peak travel period when flights are booked or over-booked so that cancellations mean travelers get stranded for days rather than hours.

Interactive: Powerful winter storm bears down on North East coast (on this page)

What I can’t understand is why they weren’t more prepared. After all, we were bombarded with constant news updates of the storm-to-come.

And I can’t understand why there isn’t more help and information for stranded travelers. Why can't the airlines — and the airports for that matter — get together and provide more real time information, particularly with modern technology and tools like the internet. Travelers should not have to wait and wait and wait just to be told to wait again. “We don’t know anyone here and we don’t know where to go,” said Meihua Chen. “It seems unreasonable to have to wait for a week just to leave here!”

American Airlines’ Martelle acknowledged that because the storm was an “act of God,” the airlines aren’t on the hook for hotels, meals, missed international flights or, as was the case with people I was chatting with in line, missed tours already paid for elsewhere in the country.

Interactive: Wild Nor’easter (on this page)

If you have travelers insurance, such expenses would be refunded, notes Dan McGinnity of AIG Travelguard. And had you booked a package through a site like Travelocity, they would have worked to get you a refund, notes Travelocity Senior Editor Genevieve Brown. But that’s little consolation for someone — me included — whose long-planned trip simply won’t happen.

“It’s not a disaster,” my daughter Mel said. “It’s just a trip to the Caribbean.”

She’s right of course.

But I can’t help but be disappointed. None of us get as much bonafide fun time with our kids as we’d like and it’s a shame for anyone when that gets derailed by no fault of their own.

I can only hope the airlines are better prepared next time.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2010 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Video: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess

  1. Closed captioning of: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess

    >> frustrations caused by the are beginning to boil over. thousands of passengers have been stranded around the country. jeff rosen is in brooklyn with the latest on the cleanup. jeff, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning to you. here we are, three days after the storm in the biggest city in the country. and it's really still a disaster area along many of the side streets . right now, i'm standing not in a park, not in a field somewhere, this is actually a residential area , a residential side street in the middle of brooklyn, new york. and when i say it's not been plowed, i mean it. i did not mean plows came through and snow just covered over, i'm saying a plow never came through, you can't get a car through here or an ambulance through here or a police car through here and that's causing many problems. and if you do, you couldn't get a tractor trailer through a snow bank that's five feet tall. the airports are just as bad or even worse , but there is some progress to report this morning. and away we finally go to -- the game went on tuesday night, the eagles and vikings in philadelphia, 48 hours late courtesy of the blizzard. governor ed rendell was there, remember on a radio show he said this about our nation.

    >> we have become a nation of wusses.

    >> reporter: by the way, the vikings won. no winners at the airport, the planes are flying again, but the backlog of passengers is staggering, lines around the terminal and stranded travelers are still sleeping here.

    >> it's just a big mess.

    >> reporter: an abc producer shot this video of a plane stuck on the tarmac at jfk for six hours.

    >> there's not much water left on the plane and all the wine and booze that would make people feel a little bit better is locked up because of customs.

    >> reporter: flights were canceled coast to coast . in milwaukee --

    >> it was such a mess and there were so many people in there, like screaming and crying.

    >> reporter: and atlanta.

    >> when you call the airline, everyone is on the phone so you wait for like half an hour in order to get to someone.

    >> reporter: experts say air travel won't bounce back until after new year's. on the streets, growing anger about new york city 's response, busses still stuck, cars still buried. and just walking is still treacherous.

    >> shame on you.

    >> yelling about it and complaining doesn't help.

    >> reporter: but even if with the blizzard comes a miracle. tammy amed?i went into labor during the storm sunday, she called an ambulance but no luck. in the end tammy gave birth at home no baby yasmine.

    >> it was horrifying. but thank god she's okay.

    >> reporter: the ambulance showed up four hours later. tammy wasn't alone. maya gelfind went into labor. they went to a subway stop and figured out the trains weren't running. whi and congratulations to those new mothers. since the storm in this area alone, three people have died including a newborn baby because, lester, exactly what i was saying before, ambulances cannot get through these side streets . mayor bloomberg made a desperate plea yesterday afternoon in a news conference, to anyone who was watching, especially to private plow drivers, saying with will hire you to come and help.

    >> a little national exposure will that get particular street plowed

Photos: The East Coast digs out

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  1. Snow covers the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 on Tuesday, Dec. 28, in New York City. Flights have slowly started to resume in New York but lines to rebook have been long. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People sleep and eat on the floor while waiting for a flight at Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A New Jersey Transit train arrives at the Princeton Junction station Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A front-end loader removes snow in New York's Times Square on Tuesday ahead of New Year festivities. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A doorman shovels a path on the east side of Manhattan on Tuesday after the blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow in the area. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dave Duncan sits in his Honda Civic, buried on the street, in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday. (Beth Defalco / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Travelers wait in ticketing lines at New York's LaGuardia airport on Tuesday. (Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Icicles melt in the afternoon sun as temperatures rise into the high 30s Tuesday in Hamilton, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. This traveler at Miami International Airport was among the many waiting Tuesday for flights after the Northeast blizzard caused backups across the country. (Jeffrey Boan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A young person sleds down a snow covered hill at Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia on Monday. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Travelers carry their luggage through a snow bank on 7th Ave. in front of Penn Station after a snow storm in New York, Dec. 27. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A windswept beach looks desolate following a snow storm on Monday in Westport, Conn. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play on a mound of snow on The Boardwalk, Dec. 27, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Gregg Smith shovels out after a heavy snowfall in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, Mass., Dec. 27. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway Monday, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays. (Bill Sikes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Alexa Canning and Talia Quinn fly through the air after hitting a jump on their sleds in Norfolk, Massachusetts. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man shovels snow on a street along the Brooklyn waterfront, Dec. 27, in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Commuters, who were trapped over night, sit on parked trains at Penn Station in New York City on Monday. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman exercises in a snow covered pasture in Durham, N.C., Monday, after a powerful East Coast blizzard that moved through Christmas day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A strong gust of wind blows snow in front of a man in Philadelphia, Monday. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A woman walks her dog between snowed-in taxicabs following a major blizzard in Manhattan's Greenwich Village on Monday in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Elena Amaral shovels steps at Trinity College during the storm in Hartford, Conn., Monday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A homeowner clears snow from the end of his driveway, Dec. 27, in Norfolk, Mass., following the blizzard which brought more than a foot of snow in the Boston area. The storm dumped snow from Atlanta, Ga. to Maine. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Michael Howard of Albany, N.Y., shovels out his vehicle on Monday. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village in the early hours of Monday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A New Jersey state trooper arrives to help after cars crash during heavy snowfall on Sunday near Columbus, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A worker clears snow from the seats at the Philadelphia Eagles stadium. (Tim Shaffer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The storm moved up from the south, where areas like Raleigh, N.C., saw snow over the weekend as well. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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