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Wilma creates big headaches for air travelers

Air travelers faced delays and flight cancellations around the nation Tuesday, as major airlines canceled hundreds of flights after Hurricane Wilma shut airports in major Florida cities.
/ Source: news services

Air travelers faced severe delays and flight cancellations around the nation Tuesday, as major airlines canceled hundreds of flights after Hurricane Wilma shut airports in major Florida cities and a severe storm hit the northeastern United States.

It could be midweek before normal service resumes at some Florida airports that were shuttered by Hurricane Wilma on Monday, officials said. But a spokeswoman at Miami International Airport, where leading U.S. carrier American Airlines has a hub, said limited cargo and commercial operations are scheduled to resume there at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

American Airlines and other air carriers have canceled hundreds of flights after Hurricane Wilma shut airports in Miami and other Florida cities, including Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, which were closed because of extensive hurricane-related damage and power outages.

Northwest Airlines said it could look at operating overnight flights from the areas damaged by the storm after power is restored. Other airlines, including Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines, said they also had canceled flights.

At least 2,000 flights have been canceled into and out of South Florida’s three major airports, meaning hundreds of thousands of domestic and international fliers will be inconvenienced and the troubled airline industry will likely lose millions of dollars in revenue.

Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach airports were closed until further notice, with Fort Myers airport set to reopen Tuesday afternoon.

Delays in the east a possibility
Airlines were also watching out for potential delays and cancellations in the northeastern United States due to a severe storm which hit the area on Tuesday.

At Boston’s Logan International Airport, gusts of 27 mph to 35 mph were recorded early Tuesday, said Phil Orlandella of the Massachusetts Port Authority. Cancellations and delays were reported.

Wind and rain were also delaying flights at New York’s LaGuardia airport by more than three hours Tuesday. The Newark and Philadelphia airports were seeing two-hour delays.

Adding to the air travel chaos was a series of bomb threats that forced the closure of airports in Long Beach and Orange County in California — both located within 50 miles of Los Angeles.

The threats were made by telephone, according to Long Beach airport spokeswoman Sharon Diggs-Jackson and federal Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez. At Long Beach, all early flights were canceled, said police Nancy Pratt. Police were searching the airport with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Officials cautioned that even after the airport was reopened there would be long delays because screeners would have to check a large volume of passengers. John Wayne Airport in Orange County has reopened and resumed normal operations, Melendez said.

Separately, San Diego airport's commuter terminal was evacuated Tuesday after baggage screeners found what initially appeared to be bomb components but turned out to be a toy, security officials said.

Miami bears Wilma's wrath
Wilma, at one time the most intense hurricane on record, left 6 million people and major airports without power and wrought destruction over a wider-than-expected swath of the Sunshine State.

American canceled about 500 flights on Monday as a result of the storm and expects to cancel more than 400 more on Tuesday, said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for the No. 1 U.S. carrier.

American, which operates 3,800 daily flights worldwide, is the sole airline with a hub in Miami, which serves as a major destination and connection point for Latin America. Miami airport is the busiest U.S. hub for Latin American travel and the busiest state hub for foreign travel.

“It is significant, no doubt,” Wagner said. “It caught Miami a little harder than what a lot of people expected.”

He said the shutdown would likely have some impact on fourth-quarter earnings, but that a lack of expenditure on pricey jet fuel would partially offset lost revenue.

The hurricane also wreaked havoc at some smaller airports and made others inaccessible by downing trees on access roads. Boca Raton lost most of its hangars, and Hollywood-North Perry sustained extensive damage to its tower and roof. The runway at Key West is under water from the storm surge, Brown said.

Air trade group comments
The Air Transport Association, the trade group representing U.S. airlines in Washington, said it wasn’t just flights in and out of Florida airports that were being affected, but that service problems in other parts of the country were limited because the industry had days of advance warning before Wilma hit.

“Still, with fuel prices so high, the last thing you want is an interruption in your revenue stream,” said ATA spokesman John Heimlich, who estimated that carriers had so far lost millions of dollars in revenue.

Hurricane Wilma caused billions of dollars in insured damage, cut the electricity of millions of Floridians and killed at least five people.

Latam flights into U.S. disrupted
“The bottom line is, it has basically disrupted or stopped the traffic flowing from Latin America into North America,” said John Hotard, a spokesman for American Airlines, a carrier with a major hub in Miami. “Miami is a major point, and this is a major disruption.”

American has at least 500 scheduled flights per day into and out of Miami, and travelers with tickets on flights into or out of South Florida are finding themselves with few options.

“We always tell people to check the Web site or their travel agency,” Hotard said. “Most people know that when the hub is closed or the airport is closed, they’re not flying tomorrow. When we can accommodate them, we try to, but most of our passengers are going to have to wait until we get going again.”

Southwest did not operate any flights into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Palm Beach International or Fort Myers airports on Monday. “When we resume depends on the condition of those airports,” Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said.

Southwest operations in Orlando and Tampa were largely unaffected.

Virtually all carriers, including JetBlue — which services Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach — were allowing passengers whose flights were canceled by Wilma to rebook their travel without change fees or fare differences.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said Wilma necessitated the closure of nine Florida airports; others included facilities in Boca Raton, Hollywood-North Perry, Key West, Kissimmee Gateway, Marathon, Fort Myers Page Field, Pompano Beach Airpark and Witham Field in Stuart.