Hurricane Irene: Airlines cancel flights

(AP, ABC7) Hundreds of thousands of airline, rail and bus passengers will be grounded this weekend as Hurricane Irene sweeps up the East Coast, past some of the nation's busiest airports.

If weather forecasters are right, the storm could strike major airports from Washington to Boston, buffeting them with heavy rain and dangerous winds.

Amtrak will run limited service Saturday and suspend train service in the Northeast Sunday, including regional services in Virginia.

Along I-95 near a Dale City rest stop, many travelers have cut their vacations short to avoid the storm.

"Just trying to get ahead of it," says John Pratt from the Bronx. He's worried about what lays ahead.

"It sounds like a direct hit is coming to the New York area, so I'm concerned about what's going to happen in low lying areas or New York City," Pratt said. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuations Friday.

United Continental Holdings Inc., the world's largest airline company, said late Friday it would cancel 2,300 flights Saturday and Sunday. Delta Air Lines said it would shut down entirely at New York-area airports on Sunday and cancel 1,300 flights through Monday.

US Airways canceled more than 1,100 flights for Saturday and Sunday, JetBlue Airways scrubbed about 880 flights through Monday, and AirTran Airways canceled 265 flights through Monday. American Airlines said it would cancel 265 flights on Saturday and probably even more on Sunday.

American expected to halt flights in and out of Washington-area airports around noon Saturday, but United hoped to remain open at Dulles International Airport in suburban Virginia, said spokesman Mike Trevino.

The hurricane is expected to make landfall around North Carolina on Saturday, move up the coast to New York on Sunday and then weaken in New England.

Delta's 1,300 cancelations, including Delta Connection flights, will equal about 8 percent of the company's flights between Saturday and Monday.

Many of the cancelations were on smaller, so-called regional affiliates such as United Express, Continental Express and Delta Connection. When weather limits flights at an airport, airlines ground those smaller planes first and try to salvage flights on the bigger "mainline" jets.

"We're worried. We don't know what we're going home to," says Mary Paplaski. Her family is left Myrtle Beach the morning. She's not sure what to expect when gets home.

"All the store shelves are shopped out. So we're upset about that. There's no water- nothing left,” she said.

Irene is expected to make landfall around North Carolina on Saturday, move up the coast to New York on Sunday and then weaken as it plods through New England. It could strike major airports from Washington to Boston.

"Absolutely, you should take it seriously,” said Kim Poretta from Pennsylvania. “You cut your vacation short, but what's the alternative - don't want to put your family at risk."

The airlines declined to say how many passengers would be affected by the hurricane, and the mix of small and big planes made it hard to estimate a figure. But the JetBlue flights, mostly on one type of aircraft, would likely have carried about 110,000 passengers, and they'll account for only about 15 percent of all canceled flights.

AAA says as many as 1.7 million vehicles will be on D.C. area highways this weekend.

Panic buying at the pump, the auto club says, is causing long lines at gas stations in North Carolina.

"A little bit of a bummer, cutting the vacation short", says Marie Figueroa, from Boston.
Figueroa, her husband Joe, and their dog Paris, piled into the car, and left Topsail Beach, NC, a day early.

"Not exactly what we expected or hoped for,” she said. “And now we're heading back to Boston with the storm on our heels."

The Airports Authority says D.C. area airline passengers should expect delays starting Saturday morning.

Airlines waived rebooking fees for customers who wanted to delay their flights to more than two dozen cities on the East Coast. Details varied by airline, with some giving travelers more time to make their rescheduled flight. Travelers whose flights were canceled would be eligible for refunds.

George Hobica, founder of the travel website, said travelers who bought nonrefundable tickets should wait until the airline cancels the flight rather than taking the airlines' offer to reschedule by a few days.

The problem with rebooking on the airlines' terms, Hobica said, is that you're unlikely to want to take the same trip a few days later.

Commuter transit systems in New York, New Jersey and outside Philadelphia will shut down services because of Hurricane Irene. Bus company Megabus has cancelled routes to and from New York on Saturday and Sunday, as well as multiple routes stopping in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says public transportation in New York City will shut down at about noon on Saturday. According to the governor's office, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will institute a system-wide shutdown when subways and buses begin their final runs starting at approximately noon.

The shutdown will include the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and Access-A-Ride. The last complete shutdown of the system was for a 2005 strike.

New Jersey Transit trains also will stop running at noon Saturday. Gov. Chris Christie made the announcement during a briefing on the storm Friday.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter says mass transit in suburban Philadelphia will halt at 12:30 a.m. Sunday.