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JetBlue apologizes after passengers stranded

JetBlue Airways Corp. tried to calm a maelstrom of criticism Thursday, after passengers were left waiting on planes at a New York airport for as long as 11 hours during a snow and ice storm.
/ Source: news services

The winter storm that blasted the Midwest and Northeast this week wreaked havoc with travelers and airlines alike. JetBlue apologized Thursday for several flights that kept passengers stranded on planes for several hours — 11 hours for one flight — and the low-cost carriers chief executive said the snafu would likely cost “many millions of dollars.”

JetBlue travelers continued to experience delays and cancelations Friday, however, as the airline struggled for a third day to recover from an operational meltdown at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

By 10:30 a.m., the 7-year-old air carrier had called off 71 of its 570 planned flights. Other flights were delayed and more cancelations were likely, said JetBlue Airways Corp. spokesman Bryan Baldwin.

The airline, he said, was having trouble getting enough planes and crews to JFK to handle to handle the flights, in part because of federal regulations limiting pilot work hours. The company had originally hoped to have things back to normal by Friday morning.

“It didn’t work as well as we planned,” Baldwin said. “It’s going to take longer than we anticipated to do that.”

JetBlue’s terminals buzzed Friday morning with hundreds of disgruntled passengers, many of whom expressed disbelief that the airline was still experiencing problems.

“We got here this morning, and it was chaos at the check in,” said Amy Mintz of Dix Hills. Her 8:55 a.m. flight to San Diego was quickly canceled. She, her husband and two children, ages 4 and 6, were on a standby list for a 6 p.m. flight, but weren’t guaranteed a seat.

“I could see the other day with all the ice ... but it hasn’t snowed or rained since Wednesday. They had two days to get enough equipment here,” Mintz said.

JetBlue is trying to calm a maelstrom of criticism after passengers were left waiting on planes at a New York airport for as long as 11 hours during a snow and ice storm.

The airline said 10 incoming and outbound flights at John F. Kennedy International Airport were “significantly delayed” with customers on board during Wednesday’s storm. Reasons included congestion, frozen equipment and an effort to keep planes ready to go in case the weather broke, said JetBlue spokesman Bryan Baldwin.

More than 250 of JetBlue’s roughly 500 flights nationwide were canceled Wednesday, but “fairly normal” service resumed Thursday, he said.

Calling Wednesday’s delays “unacceptable,” the airline planned to offer the affected passengers refunds and free flights.

“It’s going to certainly impact us, and it’s going to be many millions of dollars that we’re going to lose from this,” JetBlue CEO David Neeleman told CNBC television. “I don’t blame our customers for being upset with this,” he added. 

Problems not over
Analysts said airlines would lose some revenue because of this week’s storm, but the carriers had enjoyed relatively mild weather for the first six weeks of the year. Demand for air travel is usually a bit slack during the first quarter.

American Airlines, the nation’s biggest carrier, expected to cancel 30 to 40 flights Thursday, many at New York’s Kennedy Airport, after canceling more than 700 flights nationwide the previous two days.

Port Authority crews at JFK were struggling to clear runways, said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American, a unit of AMR Corp. Ice on the runways triggered tighter federal rules about airplane loads at takeoff, which further complicated operations, Wagner said.

Continental Airlines Inc. said only two flights had been canceled due to weather by Thursday afternoon, but there were delays, especially at Newark, N.J.

“Operations are rapidly returning to normal,” said Continental spokesman Dave Messing. “The main issue we face (Thursday) is winds at our Newark hub.”

A spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines Inc. said the carrier canceled some flights Thursday at New York’s Kennedy Airport, but that they weren’t having a ripple effect on other airports.

“The hope is that we can reposition our aircraft for smooth operations (Friday),” added the spokeswoman, Betsy Talton.

Southwest Airlines reported delays in Philadelphia but normal service at most other points.

“The weather has departed. Our operations are back on track,” said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King. The airline canceled nearly 1,000 flights earlier in the previous two days.

UAL Corp.’s United Airlines reported an unspecified number of cancellations at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and Dulles International Airport outside Washington. The same airports were the scene of many of United’s 2,000 canceled flights earlier in the week.

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said the airline planned to operate a normal schedule Friday.

‘It was horrific’
To Cheryl Chesner, 26, “unacceptable” was hardly the word for the 11 hours she said she and her husband, Seth, 27, spent trying to take a JetBlue flight to Aruba for their honeymoon.

“It was the worst. It was horrific,” she said. Baldwin said the Aruba flight, scheduled to leave at about 8 a.m. Wednesday, ultimately left late Wednesday night. But the Chesners went home to the Bronx.

While they waited to take off, John Farrell waited to arrive. His JetBlue flight from Fort Myers, Fla., landed at 10 a.m., but passengers didn’t get off until nearly 7 p.m., he said.

“You gotta realize the frustration — you can look out the window and you can see, there’s the gate, and if you let us off the plane, we can walk there,” said Farrell, 48, of Brooklyn.

Onboard the planes, snack foods wore out their welcome, bathrooms became unpleasant and cabins sweltered, passengers said.

“They had to open the door every 20 minutes just so we could get air,” said Sean Corrinet, 29, who was on a flight bound for Cancun, Mexico. It was delayed for at least eight hours, Baldwin said.

Baldwin said the jam arose as the airline sent outbound flights to the runway — so they could leave immediately if the weather let up — while incoming flights filled up the gates. The problem grew as some equipment used to tow planes away from gates froze to the ground, he said.

“We ended up with a gridlock situation where we couldn’t move any of the aircraft at the gates,” he said.

The airline stopped incoming flights by midafternoon, Baldwin said. By about 3 p.m., the airline gave up hope that the weather would allow the planes on the runway to take off and started arranging for buses to bring passengers back, he said. But the icy weather made that a slow process, he said.

“We need to make sure that it’s always safe for the customers,” he said.

JetBlue will review the day’s events to determine whether it could have handled the storm differently and how to prevent similar problems from arising again, Baldwin said.