Air travelers scrambling to get home

Reagan National Airport in Washington was nearly deserted Monday ahead of Superstorm Sandy.

Story highlights

  • Airlines moved quickly to cancel flights and move aircraft out of harm's way
  • Passengers willing to travel on different dates or to different airports may still be able to fly
  • Travelers willing to leave the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions early escaped the wrath of Sandy

Andrew Avis, a construction safety consultant on vacation from the United Kingdom, has been stranded in New York since Saturday.

He and his wife, Sandy, marked their 38th wedding anniversary on the Amtrak train from Orlando on Friday night - but were planning to splash out more lavishly when they arrived in New York, before traveling on to visit friends in Rhode Island.

Instead, they found their train out of New York on Sunday was canceled and were forced to hole up in the city as it braced itself for the incoming storm.

Airlines resume limited service

"I wasn't anticipating coming here with two Sandys," said Avis, 64.

Their Manhattan hotel was buffeted by high winds but the streets around it were left largely unscathed as the storm rolled in. The couple might have tried to stay on longer in New York but learned Tuesday night that the hotel couldn't extend their booking, so they were trying to rent a car Wednesday morning to drive the 250 miles to their Rhode Island destination and fly out of Boston on Friday.

"We still don't know if we have a plane out of Boston on Friday," said Avis. "That's the next problem."

Stranded far from home

As the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions struggle to return to some semblance of normalcy after Superstorm Sandy, many visitors are stuck where they are for the moment. At the same time, residents of affected areas remain stranded in California, Illinois and other locations far from home.

And yet it could have been so much worse: Airports filled with stranded travelers sleeping on chairs. Harried airline ticket agents unable to rebook people on already full flights. Airport food courts running out of essential ingredients as the delays dragged on.

When Sandy was a tropical storm heading toward the Caribbean, airlines began addressing several chief concerns: rebooking or canceling flights for passengers scheduled to fly during the storm's expected landfall; protecting their multimillion dollar aircraft; and placing those planes and crews in position to resume service quickly after the storm passed.

"They did everything right," said aviation analyst Michael Boyd. They anticipated problems, canceled flights early and staged planes properly. "

"We really expected it to be like a snowstorm ... with hundreds of people sitting in blankets (at the airport) and the food court running out of food."

Paying attention to the warning signs

JetBlue moved more than 60 aircraft and their crews out of Boston Logan International Airport and New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport days before Sandy was expected to hit both cities. Some planes were parked at the Orlando and Fort Lauderdale airports, where JetBlue offers service. But other planes parked temporarily at the airport in Roswell, New Mexico, where JetBlue doesn't offer service.

Informed travelers paid attention to the storm tracking reports and acted quickly when the opportunity came up to change their flights, said Brett Snyder, who operates the Cranky Flier website and concierge service.

"Some people drop the trip, and we saw a lot of that this week," said Snyder. "If you haven't started your trip, your meeting yesterday was probably canceled. With most airlines, you should sit and wait and see if the flight cancels or not because you can get a refund if it cancels. Or you can decide to take a credit."

People in the middle of a trip to the potentially hard-hit areas can decide to leave before the storm arrives.

"The key there is to do it early because the planes will fill up," he said. "Be decisive in those situations even though (the weather) might speed up or slow down. When they give you flexibility, take advantage of it."

Passengers simply connecting at any of the airports in Sandy's path needed to be rerouted as well, said Jim Osborne, Virtuoso's vice president of air, space and specialty products.

"We had a passenger flying from Israel connecting through New York to South Carolina, and we rerouted him through Miami instead," said Osborne.

Perspective from a safe place

Susan Kelleher of Philadelphia was stranded in Atlanta after she and her husband traveled there Friday for a wedding. After seeing their US Airways flights to Philadelphia canceled a couple times while they played unexpected tourists in Atlanta on Monday, the next flight home wasn't going to be available until Thursday, November 1.

So they decided to change their destination. US Airways allowed the couple to change their flight. Instead of landing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, they flew first to Charlotte and then to Richmond, Virginia. There, they rented a car for the five-hour drive home.

"The airline has been more than accommodating with vouchers," said Kelleher. "They're losing money on this, and they were happy to check all kinds of different alternatives for you."

"Up and down the East Coast, my people are fine and I am so grateful for that," she said.

A much more serious delay

The delay had become more serious for Norman Auerbach, 66, who took a trip to New York City last weekend to see his son and grandchildren before he was scheduled to undergo a heart bypass and mitral valve repair in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Friday.

His planned flight back with JetBlue on Monday and another flight on Wednesday were both canceled. After countless calls trying to get through to the airline to rebook, he got booked on a JetBlue flight from LaGuardia Saturday night that lands in the early hours -- too late for his surgery.

That's when he posted a Twitter message to JetBlue about his dilemma. When CNN called JetBlue, a customer support team member contacted Auerbach and booked him on a Thursday morning flight home out of Newark.

"I was really impressed with her efforts and also her follow up, WOW!" he wrote Wednesday night, in an email to CNN. "I was also amazed at the power of Twitter ... It's a whole new dimension in communication and collaboration."

JetBlue customers needing special assistance can call a special needs phone number (855-ADA-LINE or 855-232-5463). Many other airlines have similar numbers posted on their websites.

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