Winter weather once again wallops travelers

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Thousands of flights were canceled Wednesday and Thursday, and travelers heading in and out of the East Coast are facing major headaches after the region took yet another major winter weather pounding.

A fresh 19 inches of snow slammed New York City, giving the city its snowiest January on record, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.

The snow in New York virtually shut down LaGuardia and Kennedy airports for much of the day. When flights resumed, delays averaged about two hours, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Flights also resumed at airports in the Washington, D.C., region after overnight runway closures and flight cancellations left hundreds of travelers stranded.

By Thursday afternoon, more than 2,850 flights had been canceled, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

About 1,500 passengers were stranded overnight at Philadelphia International Airport, according to an airport spokeswoman.

“Don’t go in to the airport,” said Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer guidebooks. “You’ll be as effective on the phone or on the Internet getting booked on another flight.”

Frommer urges loyalty members to call the special phone numbers provided by an airline. “The numbers tend to be better staffed,” she said, adding that airlines sometimes offer rewards members better perks.

Airlines hoped to run nearly normal schedules on Friday. If so, that would make Thursday's problems a nuisance but not as bad as the late-December Northeast blizzard that wiped out more than 10,000 flights over three days. A mid-January storm caused the cancellation of nearly 9,000 flights.

Planes are grounded on a snow covered tarmac at New York's LaGuardia Airport January 27, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT TRANSPORT BUSINESS)Jessica Rinaldi / X01704

By Thursday afternoon, Delta and its Delta Connection affiliate canceled 675 flights, US Airways and its regional affiliates canceled 559 and JetBlue Airways dropped 260.

Continental and United had erased more than 650 flights between them by midmorning, although the numbers were likely to go higher once afternoon flights were counted.

Southwest canceled 129 flights including everything before early afternoon at Islip, N.Y.

"Slow-going is the mantra," said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins. "Flying is not the problem; it's moving people and planes and equipment."

American Airlines and regional affiliate American Eagle scrubbed 246 flights by afternoon and were seeing long delays in the New York area, said spokesman Tim Smith. Another problem, he said: "Some employees are having difficulty getting to their airports."

The airlines were allowing passengers scheduled to fly to or from the Northeast to delay their trips a few days without getting socked by a ticket-change fee, which is usually $150 for domestic travel.

AirTran Airways, which had canceled 20 flights by afternoon, was allowing travelers to delay trips without penalty by more than a week — longer than the usual grace period. Spokesman Christopher White said that made it easier to put stranded travelers on later flights.

The airlines were allowing passengers scheduled to fly to or from the Northeast to delay their trips a few days without getting socked by a ticket-change fee, which is usually $150 for domestic travel.

AirTran Airways, which had canceled 18 flights by midmorning, was allowing travelers to delay trips without penalty by more than a week — longer than the usual grace period. Spokesman Christopher White said that made it easier to put stranded travelers on later flights.

If you are a traveler who needs to rebook a flight, and you’re not happy, Frommer suggests you take what the airline first offers and call them back later. “You may not get the rebooked itinerary you want, but try, try again and you may be more successful.”

While airlines are operating with fuller flights than a year ago thanks to a modest recovery in travel demand, planes are typically less full in late January than in December. That was expected to make it easier to rebook travelers — in sharp contrast to late December, when it took some passengers several days to get home.

Still, some travelers were stuck overnight. They tried to make the best of the situation.

Mark Wilson, a marketing executive from Portland, Ore., intended to fly home Wednesday night but his flight out of Newark, N.J., was canceled. So was the flight that the airline booked him on Thursday morning.

"It looks like I'll be going home on Friday," said Wilson, who planned to look for a hotel and Internet access. "There's not much point in getting stressed out about it because it's weather. You might as well just work around it and that's what I'm trying to do."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.