Grounded And Confounded, Airlines Wait For Storms To Pass

The snow and ice storms sweeping the East Coast have been felt not only on the ground but in the air, as well. Airlines are cancelling thousands of flights, and both the companies and their passengers have had to deal with the fallout.

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And people are stranded not just in Charlotte, but in airports all over. Some airports temporarily shut down, including Washington's Reagan National. NPR's Chris Arnold is covering the effects on the airlines.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: With TV networks tracking satellite images of the swirling Technicolor monster of a snow storm, nobody can say they were caught by surprise, and airlines moved early to cancel flights. So that kept many people home shoveling out their driveways instead of sitting face down at the airport bar. Still, there are some not so lucky travelers too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

JESSICA WILDER: We flew from Vegas to Dallas yesterday.

ARNOLD: Jessica Wilder hasn't slept much because she got stranded in Dallas last night when her flight back home to Atlanta was cancelled. One of her young kids is still holding onto his blue blanket.

WILDER: It was a nightmare in the airport for us, so it sucked really bad. With two kids, by myself, so yeah.

ARNOLD: Daniel Baker is the CEO of FlightAware.com, which tracks air travel. He says first this is a doozy of a snow storm and it's really disrupting travel.

DANIEL BAKER: Atlanta saw 70 percent of flights cancelled, Atlanta one of the busiest airports in the U.S. and in the world. To see 70 percent of the flights cancelled had a really huge impact on a lot of travelers. Not just folks that were flying to and from Atlanta, but who were connecting in Atlanta to go to other cities.

ARNOLD: As the storm moved north as the day went on, Baker says Philadelphia saw 70 percent of its flights cancelled, the New York area airports cancelled 60 percent of flights. Still, Baker says before Smartphones it used to be a lot worse.

BAKER: You would show up at the airport and find out your flight was cancelled and stand in an hour or two hour long line.

ARNOLD: But now, because of services like his or the airlines' own text messaging and email alerts about flight changes, things these days are working much better.

BAKER: The travelers can go online and re-accommodate themselves on the airline website, which is a huge improvement on the consumer experience.

ARNOLD: There's another thing motivating airlines to do a better job - a few years ago, some big snow storms, one of which was also on Valentine's Day actually, left people sitting on the tarmac for hours and hours, trapped inside of planes that never took off, and that helped to spark new government regulations, and so airlines now have to pay pretty hefty fines when they do that to their customers.

So that's encouraging airlines to cancel flights and tell people to just stay home.

DON DILLMAN: The cancels for today are up over 5,000.

ARNOLD: Don Dillman is with Airlines For America, which is the airline's main trade group. He says one good thing about this storm is that it's been very predictable.

DILLMAN: This storm, it's tracking pretty much right where the forecast models put it, and so what that does is it allows the various airlines to put together very good proactive plans.

ARNOLD: Dillman says as a result, the more southern airports are already getting back into action. This afternoon, travelers were queuing up again in long security lines to try to get their rescheduled flights. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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