Even if Hurricane Sandy clears the East Coast by Tuesday, airline analysts… (Olivier Douliery, Abaca…)
Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the nation's air travel system Monday, grounding thousands of flights, stranding travelers from the East Coast to Los Angeles and threatening to disrupt air travel through the week.
Airlines canceled more than 8,900 flights Sunday and Monday, and 4,800 more scheduled for Tuesday. The vast majority of the cancellations were at airports serving the nation's busiest airspace, hitting Philadelphia International Airport, LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport especially hard.
The ripple effects of the storm were felt across the country, with about 160 flights in and out of Los Angeles International Airport canceled Monday.
PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy
Despite the cancellation of thousands of business and leisure trips, airline analysts say the financial impact on the airline industry may not be severe, because the storm won't interrupt the heavy holiday travel period and many flights could be back on schedule within a week.
Among the passengers stranded by the storm were Mary McLean, 70, and her friend Valerie Forrest, 75, who traveled from Brisbane, Australia, to Los Angeles, with plans to continue on to New York to see "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.
The two grandmothers spent Monday morning booking a new flight to New York for Thursday and finding a hotel in Los Angeles for the next few days. They took the delay in stride.
"You have to have a positive attitude about these things," McLean said. "We're still here and nobody's being hurt."
"We're fancy-free," Forrest added. "As long as we have a place to sleep, I'm happy."
So far, the cancellation numbers fall short of the 15,000 or so flights canceled because of Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and the 24,000 flights canceled during the ice storms of February 2011, according to the air travel website FlightAware.com.
Even if Hurricane Sandy clears the East Coast by Tuesday, airline analysts say travelers may have a tough time booking new seats until at least next week.
Empty seats are a rare commodity since the nation's airlines began more than a year ago to cut many short-haul routes and eliminate less-profitable flights to increase revenue. The percentage of filled seats on the nation's major carriers has increased to an average of 86% in July 2012 from about 78% in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Making the search for seats even more difficult is that some airlines have shortened the time that passengers get to rebook a flight and still have the carriers waive change fees and the difference in fares, if any. United and American, for example, are giving passengers whose flights were canceled by Sandy until Nov. 7 to begin a trip with those vouchers. Details vary by airline.
Southwest Airlines is giving passengers 14 days from the date of the cancellation to use the vouchers.
In the past, airlines gave passengers up to a year to use vouchers from canceled flights, said Joe Brancatelli, who writes the online travel newsletter Joe Sent Me.
Once the storm passes, airlines may consider adding extra planes to accommodate the surge in reservations that will come when passengers try to rebook tickets. But several airline representatives said their carriers had yet to decide whether they will invest in the extra flights.
"We will work to accommodate our customers based on their travel plans as best as possible and as quickly as possible," American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.
Still, the harm to the airline industry could have been worse. The storm gave air carriers enough warning to cancel flights and move aircraft out of the path of the storm, industry experts said. In addition, airline analysts say the damage will be lessened because the storm won't hamper heavy holiday travel.
Instead, the storm's effect will be felt primarily by business travelers, many of whom may be able to reschedule their trips if airlines return to normal schedules soon, said Tim Husted, director of travel and transaction support services for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
"What's unknown is will the storm move through quickly and how much damage will occur at airports," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Atmosphere Research Group who is based in San Francisco. "Assuming most airports reopen on Wednesday, the financial impact should be fairly minimal."
Another advantage for the airline industry is that carriers are not responsible for covering the cost of hotel accommodations for passengers stranded because of weather delays.
Although many passengers on the East Coast had no choice but to ride out the hurricane at storm-battered airports, some fliers in Los Angeles made the most of the flight cancellations.
Lyn Hindle, 66, and 11 other family members from Melbourne, Australia, had to alter a trip through the U.S. that was to take in several locations in New York, including the site of the fallen World Trade Center and the Empire State Building.
"We're going to San Francisco instead.... We don't really know what's there," Hindle said. "Although my son's excited to go to Alcatraz."
If all goes well, she said her family will make their scheduled Nov. 2 flight to visit Orlando, Fla., to take in Disney World.
"I really wanted to see New York," Hindle said. "That's the biggest disappointment."