Planes, trains, buses return to normal _ almost

August 30, 2011 - 3:15 PM
Irene

Travelers walk through doors at the Trenton train station early Monday, Aug. 29, 2011, in Trenton, N.J., without seeing a sign that says there is no train service. New Jersey Transit rail service was suspended Monday due to damage from Hurricane Irene. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's planes, trains and buses had their first full day of near-normal service since Thursday, as most passengers stranded by Hurricane Irene slowly made their way home.

Airlines said overall Tuesday that despite some scattered issues, including a handful of delays and cancellations, most flights were running smoothly because of the overtime put in by crews put in the day before. Most ran extra flights Monday to clear the glut of travelers waiting to fly.

Flight tracking service FlightAware reported only 159 flights were scratched compared with more than 1,700 on Monday. Nearly 14,000 flights were scrapped in the hours before, during and after the storm. That's the most in any four-day period in more than a year, surpassing cancellations during either of the massive snowstorms this winter.

United Continental, Delta and US Airways expect to finish shuttling the majority of stranded travelers to their final destinations Tuesday. American Airlines spokesman Ed Martelle said it cleared its backlog of passengers in New York waiting to take off. And JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras said every passenger affected by the storm should be brought to their destinations by the end of the week.

Most airlines reported few problems getting planes back in the air and getting travelers where they needed to go. But some officials said that the decision to shut down major airports — especially the closure of New York's five main airports by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — caused a scramble.

David Holtz, the managing director for operations at Delta, had just about finished its cancellation plan around 6 p.m. on Friday and could have kept flying at New York's Kennedy airport through Saturday evening when airport officials said they would close at noon Saturday.

That "threw a huge monkey wrench into our planning," he said. Delta canceled additional flights to adjust to the earlier closing.

Airport officials thought the 18-hour notice was generous. But with flights of 12 hours or longer scheduled from as far away as Tokyo, the decision forced the airline to act quickly to notify passengers before they left for the airport, he said.

Susan Baer, the Port Authority's aviation director, said the shutdown of New York's public transit system — which most employees use to get to work — affected its decision to close the airports.

Despite the sooner-than-expected shutdown, some airlines praised the efficiency of the airports' reopening.

"The coordination was really extraordinary," JetBlue CEO Dave Barger told CNBC on Monday. "I really don't think we could have had a more effective startup."

Reopening airports means much more than just switching on the lights. In New York, for example, it involved doing everything from clearing cots used by stranded travelers to making sure airport staff could show up to work. With the city's public transportation system limping back into service, Baer said security agents were picked up by their managers in vans to ensure that they'd make it to work on time.

Amtrak resumed service between New York and Boston on Tuesday. Trains are still cancelled between Philadelphia and New York because of flooding. Amtrak also cancelled trains from the Northeast to cities like Miami and New Orleans.

Travelers who couldn't fly or take the train turned to the bus. BoltBus was fully booked Monday and Tuesday, according to Timothy Stokes, a spokesman for its parent company Greyhound. The only cancellation for Greyhound was its route between Albany and Syracuse.

Megabus also saw an increase in passengers who had tried to get around by other means, according to Dale Moser, president and COO of Megabus parent company Coach USA.

All buses were running again, but some kept their speeds down on roads other than interstate highways as a precaution.