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N.Y. airports begin relieving backlog of stranded fliers

East Coast airports reopened on Monday, but it will likely take days to move hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded by Tropical Storm Irene to their final destinations.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

East Coast airports reopened on Monday, but it will likely take days to move hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded by Tropical Storm Irene to their final destinations.

On Monday, airlines repositioned aircraft flown out of the region ahead of the storm, leaving Tuesday as their target for returning normal service to the storm-struck region.

Airports in New York, Boston and Philadelphia bustled Monday after being closed for much of the weekend. The week before Labor Day is always a busy one for airlines, so they struggled to cram travelers stranded by Irene onto already-packed planes.

New York's three major airports — John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York and Newark Liberty in New Jersey — were shut down on Saturday as the storm bore down on the mid-Atlantic. The three airports serve about 100 million passengers annually.

Smaller airports in the area are still closed. Stewart International Airport is expected to resume flights Tuesday. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports, said Teterboro Airport in New Jersey is partially flooded and will reopen once damage can be repaired.

Airlines began winding down schedules on Friday in advance of Irene. They canceled more than 13,000 flights, including 1,500 on Monday, according to the online tracking service FlightAware.com.

Delta Air Lines, US Airways, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, and JetBlue Airways were most affected.

Vaughn Cordle, an analyst and consultant with AirlineForecasts.com, estimated Irene could shave $200 million to $300 million off annual profits of the top 10 U.S. airlines.

The disruption could hit JetBlue Airways Group the hardest as it is based in New York, he said, cutting earnings this year by an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent. Other carriers with bigger networks could take a 3 percent to 5 percent profit hit, he added.

Changing travel plans
Darryl and Isabel Fleming arrived at LaGuardia at 5:30 a.m. Monday in an attempt to catch a new flight to Miami after their original flight was canceled. They needed to be in Miami in time for their 5 p.m. departure on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship for a weeklong sailing in the Bahamas. The trip was supposed to be their final vacation before the school year started for their 5-year-old daughter Gabriella and 11-year-old son Nathanael.

Darryl grimaced at the prospect of losing the $4,000 the family spent on the flights and cruise. Both were hopeful that insurance purchased through a travel agency for the cruise might yield a refund, but had to wait until the agency opened this morning to find out.

Others were luckier. Joshua Brechner, 21, was scheduled to fly out Sunday to return to Chicago for his senior year of college at Northwestern University. When he and his father looked at the weather forecast last Thursday, they decided to pre-emptively reschedule his flight for today. “Knowing how things can be when there’s weather issues, we called them up early and at that time they’d just gone to no-fees for ticket changes,” said Joshua’s father, Berl Brechner.

Chris Sumang, 29, also decided to reschedule his flight for Monday. Sumang’s girlfriend was nervous about flying to Miami last Friday, so the couple called American Airlines on Thursday evening to rebook.

Sumang, who lives 20 miles northeast of LaGuardia in Rye, N.Y., arrived a few hours early anticipating heavy delays or possibly a cancellation. “I was not going to chance it,” he said.

The couple had booked a weeklong stay at a hotel in the Florida Keys, a trip that is now cut short by three days. “We’ve been planning this trip since before summer,” said Sumang. “I didn’t expect the storm — I was upset when it came. It’s all right, though.”

Hans Illguth said he and his wife, Joy, were “worried sick” that their Monday afternoon flight on Frontier would be cancelled. The couple, who are from Bundaberg, Australia, and have spent the past three weeks touring the U.S., feared their flight to Las Vegas would be canceled. Their stay in Sin City will be their last before returning home to Australia.

The Illguths said they tried to cram in as much sightseeing in New York City as possible before the storm came. They visited the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State building and other tourist attractions in two short days. They even rode an empty subway car before the city’s mass transit was shut down on Saturday at noon and also snapped a photo of sandbags on Wall Street.

They were relieved to learn that their flight was on-time.

Disrupted service
Subway service in New York was fully restored at about noon on Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said. Ground transportation started easing back into service on Sunday evening.

There's no easy way to squeeze all the displaced passengers onto scheduled flights, especially with airports around New York — the nation's busiest airspace — reopening Monday. And ground transport alternatives remain limited, with bus and train service disrupted into Monday as well as along the East Coast.

"We're coming into the Labor Day holiday weekend, so a lot of those flights are already full,"  Lehmacher added.

Airlines won't say how many passengers have been grounded since Irene came ashore in North Carolina on Saturday.

FlightAware put the total of individual cancellations at around 650,000, noting that many of the flights canceled so far were on regional airlines that use small planes.

Some travel experts suggested much larger numbers — 1 million or more.

'Frustrated'
The storm also was creating problems for Americans traveling outside the U.S. who now find themselves unable to get home.

Raymond Cielo flew to the Dominican Republic with his wife and two daughters on Aug. 19 — only to have his vacation plans washed away by Hurricane Irene. "It rained for four days straight," Cielo told msnbc.com.

Cielo, of Woodland Park, N.J., had planned to fly home Aug. 27, but learned late Friday that their Saturday flight had been canceled.

Despite his status as a Platinum Elite member with Continental, Cielo spent hours on the phone — at $2 a minute — trying to reach the airline, only to learn that the first available flight back to Newark airport is Sept. 4.

He said his extended hotel stay in Punta Cana will cost an additional $3,000, not to mention unexpected extra time off work. "We are frustrated and just want to get home even though it is beautiful here now," said Cielo.

Nicole Whitney Sobel was supposed to fly home to Boston from Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday. However, she found herself stranded in Mexico for a few more days after learning that her connecting flight in Charlotte, N.C., was canceled.

"I was disappointed when I found out I wouldn't be home in time because I have appointments and meetings that I need to get back home for, which I now had to cancel and re-schedule from Mexico with limited phone access," she told msnbc.com.

However, the 25-year-old freelance writer, who is in Mexico on a work-related trip, says things could be worse. She could have been stuck at the Charlotte airport trying to arrange accommodations and transportation.

Instead, she's at a luxury resort in Riviera Maya. "The sun is out today, and guests are laying out by the pool and on the beach," she said.

She hopes to get rebooked on a new flight home as early as Tuesday.

Airlines said passengers should call ahead and make sure they have a confirmed seat before going to the airport. (Click here for rebooking tips as well as a list of airline Twitter feeds and websites.)

Planes, trains and automobiles
Long-distance bus and train companies also saw lingering effects from Irene.

Greyhound scrubbed bus travel between Richmond, Va., and Boston all weekend.

A spokeswoman said buses would begin to roll north out of Richmond Monday morning and the company hoped to be running in New York by midday.

Amtrak reopened limited train service in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, but most trains through New York City were canceled Monday.

When blizzards hit the East Coast in December and February, it took some airline passengers days to get home. That could happen again.

Sara Hesselsweet of Norwalk, Conn., and her family were to fly home Sunday from vacation at Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. After their flight was canceled, American Airlines told her it couldn't find seats for her, her husband and 2-year-old son until next Saturday.

So the family decided to fly from Reno, Nev., to Dallas and on to Chicago, where they would rent a car to drive back to Connecticut.

"We checked Philadelphia, D.C., Boston, the Carolinas — we couldn't get a flight anywhere," said Hesselsweet, sitting amid a pile of carry-on bags in the Reno airport.