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Major storms snarl holiday air travel

Shutdown of Denver's airport strands passengers across the U.S. Thousands at LAX seek other flights.

December 22, 2006|Jennifer Oldham and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

Travel woes piled up at the nation's airports Thursday as western snowstorms shut a key hub in Denver for a second day, creating a ripple effect that stranded passengers from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

United Airlines alone canceled 2,000 flights nationwide.

That left as many as 10,000 people scrambling for alternative routes out of Los Angeles International Airport, or waiting until Denver International Airport reopens two of six runways at noon today -- on what was already expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the Christmas season.

After the Denver airport was pelted by more than 2 feet of snow, its shutdown generated no shortage of horror stories: weary passengers flying for five hours, only to have their flight return to the city they left from; travelers on a frantic quest for lost luggage stuffed with gifts; others fearing they would miss spending the holidays with family and friends.

After learning that his 7:30 p.m. flight to Washington Dulles International Airport had been canceled, Pasadena resident Thomas Bane drove to LAX on Thursday morning in hopes of getting on another airplane. The Orbitz Internet booking site told him it didn't have alternatives Thursday or Friday. By early afternoon, he had spent three hours in an LAX ticket line.

"My fiancee said when I finally get to the counter I have to tell them that my fiancee will cry if I don't make it to Virginia to spend Christmas with her family," Bane, 23, said. "I'm going to try that. I'm hoping for the best but expecting the worst."

Indeed, the one-two punch of frightful weather and already-overbooked holiday flights led airlines to warn they would be hard-pressed to get travelers home before Christmas Eve, at the earliest.

"Because of the severity of the storm and the duration, we're anticipating it could take us several days to get all customers whose flights were canceled to their destination," said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, which considers Denver its second-busiest hub. LAX is the carrier's fifth-busiest.

Airlines urged travelers to go to an airport only if they have confirmed that their flight is operating and that they have a reservation. United automatically rebooks travelers whose flights are canceled and is giving them until Wednesday to change a reservation without penalty.

Other carriers, such as Frontier, which routes nearly all of its flights through Denver, do not automatically rebook passengers and rely on them to make alternative plans.

"We're getting crushed at our call center," said Joe Hodas, a Frontier spokesman. "We're having 50,000 people trying to rebook, and a lot of folks are having a tough time getting through."

It was also a chaotic day for British Airways, due to a different kind of weather crisis a continent away. The airline was forced to cancel all European and domestic flights when fog shrouded runways at several airports in Britain.

Thousands of travelers trying to leave or pass through London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's largest international hubs, were forced to bed down in the corridors and at the gates Wednesday and Thursday nights as surrounding hotels quickly filled.

The airlines estimated that 350 flights from Heathrow were held up Thursday night, disrupting the travel plans of about 50,000 passengers.

Los Angeles' airport agency predicts that more than 1.75 million passengers will pass through LAX from today through Jan. 2, up slightly over the same period last year. About 200,000 travelers are forecast for Ontario International, which the agency also operates.

Regional airports from Santa Ana to Long Beach to Burbank were already experiencing long lines Thursday and urged travelers to arrive at least two hours before a domestic flight.

"It's going to be a zoo around here," said Lucy Burghdorf, community relations manager at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport. "All the airlines are saying they're booked."

Southwest Airlines, which provides 70% of the airport's flights, saw a 35% jump in passengers this week. The airline, which typically serves 5,000 passengers daily, expects to handle 6,800 today. On Wednesday and Thursday, United had canceled eight flights to Denver from Bob Hope.

Travelers at John Wayne Airport were also coping with canceled flights Thursday. Santa Ana residents Dorothy Stumm, 73, and her daughter, Jenevieve Stumm, 32, waited 12 hours for options to fly to Denver on their way to Sioux City, Iowa. To prepare for their trip to visit Dorothy's first great-granddaughter, they had knitted scarves and matching hats for themselves and 3-week-old Elena.

"It's extremely frustrating," Dorothy Stumm said. "There's nothing available anywhere. Were out of luck."

Instead, the Stumms decided to pack their belongings into her Honda and drive east, hoping to make it to Iowa in time for Christmas.

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