NEW YORK – Hurricane Sandy grounded thousands of flights in the U.S. northeast Monday and upended travel plans across the globe, stranding passengers from Hong Kong to Europe. The massive storm threatens to bring a near halt to air travel for at least two days in a key region for both domestic and international flights.
Major carriers such as American Airlines, United and Delta cancelled all flights into and out of three area airports in New York, the nation's busiest airspace. According to the flight-tracking service FlightAware, nearly 10,000 flights had been canceled for Monday and Tuesday, almost all related to the storm.
The cancellations have already surpassed those from last year's damaging Hurricane Irene. They're now on par with a major winter storm in early 2011. Back then, 14,000 flights were scrapped over four days.
Delays rippled across the U.S., affecting travelers in cities such as San Francisco to Chicago. Disruptions spread to Europe and Asia, where airlines canceled or delayed flights to New York and Washington from cities that are major travel hubs including London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
About one-quarter of all U.S. flights travel in or out of New York airports each day. So cancellations here can dramatically impact travel in other cities.
Businessman Alan Shrem was trying to return home to Boca Raton, Fla. His Monday morning Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York's Kennedy airport was canceled.
He learned he could be stuck in Hong Kong for nearly a week because the next available seat was Nov. 4. He was put on a waiting list for seats that could become available earlier.
"They just say: Yeah, it's a pretty big waiting list," said Shrem, throwing up his hands. In the meantime, he'll have to fork out $400 a night to continue staying at a nearby hotel. The airline won't pay for accommodation for stranded passengers if delays are weather related.
By early afternoon, the storm had strengthened to 90 mph and had already knocked out power to tens of thousands of people. Sandy was 110 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J., and had turned toward the west, as forecasters feared. Sandy is on track to collide with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
Airports in the metropolitan New York City area are open, but air carriers are not operating.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said Monday that travelers shouldn't even try to go to Kennedy, Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and Stewart airports.
Angela Gittens, director general of the Airports Council International who was the aviation director at Miami International Airport Dade during several hurricanes from 2001 to 2004, said even if storm damage is minor it could be a week before operations are normal at major East Coast airports.
"The storm has such a wide swath and so many major airports are involved that it's going to take some time (to recover) because those airplanes are so far away," Gittens said.
JetBlue Airways Corp. expects its cancellations from Sunday through Tuesday to total about 1,200. The airline has hubs at Kennedy airport and Boston's Logan. Rob Maruster, the company's chief operating officer, hopes flights can resume in New York on Wednesday morning. But he's worried about flooding of JFK's runways since they are all basically at sea level and near bodies of water.
Delta Air Lines Inc. has canceled 2,100 flights over the three days. American Airlines has scrapped 1,000 flights, including 260 on regional affiliate American Eagle.
It's still too early to assess the impact on airline's bottom lines. Many of the customers on flights currently being cancelled will reschedule later on, so the airline will still collect the fare. But the cost of parking planes for days, along with potential damage, will undoubtedly cost airlines millions.
International travelers could wait days to get to the East Coast of the U.S. All flights from Paris to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington — a total of 14 — were canceled.
Frankfurt airport canceled 12 flights, with German carrier Lufthansa scrapping three to the Northeast and one out of Newark. British Airways had to cancel all its flights to and from New York, Newark, Baltimore, Washington DC, Boston and Philadelphia — a total of 20.
Eight flights out of Tokyo's Narita International Airport to New York, Newark and Washington were canceled Monday.
Hong Kong's Cathay canceled its two daily flights to New York for Monday and Tuesday and Air India said its daily flights to Newark and JFK had halted since Sunday.
South Korean flag carrier Korean Air delayed a flight scheduled to leave Incheon International Airport for JFK on Monday by 22 hours. Asiana Airlines delayed its JFK flight from Seoul by 26 hours.