Airlines all but shutter as blizzard looms

Before the first snowflake had even fallen, airlines scratched thousands of flights. Up to 3 feet of snow is expected in some areas.

Most airlines were giving up on flying in and out of New York, Boston and other airports in the Northeast Friday as a massive storm threatened to dump snow by the foot on the Northeast.

Airlines were generally shutting down operations in the afternoon at the three big New York-area airports as well as Boston, Providence, Portland, Maine, and other Northeastern airports. They're hoping to resume flights on Saturday.

Flight-tracking website FlightAware said airlines have canceled more than 4,000 flights on Friday and Saturday in advance of the storm.

Many travelers were steering clear of that part of the country altogether. Airlines waived the usual fees to change tickets for flights in the affected areas.

Airlines began canceling Saturday flights on Friday, hours before the storm was due to hit, said Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware. "That's when the meteorologists start to have reliable predictions and the FAA holds conference calls to discuss which airports are shutting down," he said.

Airlines are also at the mercy of mass transit in each city they fly to. They'll often wrap up flying around the same time that trains and subways begin shutting down, he said.

Airlines try to get ahead of big storms by canceling flights in advance rather than crossing their fingers that they can operate in bad weather.

Storms like this one jam up airline call centers, so airlines are increasingly automating the process of re-booking passengers.

Delta is rolling out software it calls "VIPER" — Virtual Inconvenienced Passenger Expedited Reprotection — to find a replacement flight for passengers whose flights have been canceled.

As any frequent traveler knows, during a bad storm, the fastest route from, say, New York to Minneapolis may be through Atlanta, or Salt Lake City. Airline workers are adept at finding such routes manually. The new Delta system looks for such "creative routings" automatically and sends a message to the traveler telling them about their new flight, Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson said on an employee hot line message last week.

"We need the ability to use automation to figure out for our passengers the quickest and fastest way to (re-accommodate) them on Delta or other carriers," he said. "Our goal is to get them to their destination as promptly as possible."

The snow was snarling air travel in Canada, too, with 240 flights canceled on Friday at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said Toronto hasn't seen a snowfall exceeding 5 inches since Dec. 19, 2008. The current storm was expected to dump up to 11 inches of snow as it moves along.

STORM BEGINS

Snow began to fall around the Northeast on Friday at the start of what's predicted to be a massive, possibly historic blizzard, and residents scurried to stock up on food and supplies ahead of the storm poised to dump up to 3 feet of snow from New York City to Boston and beyond.

Even before the first snowflake had fallen, Boston, Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn., and other towns and cities in New England and upstate New York towns canceled school Friday, and airlines scratched more than 3,700 flights through Saturday, with the disruptions from the blizzard certain to ripple across the U.S.

"This one doesn't come along every day. This is going to be a dangerous winter storm," said Alan Dunham, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. "Wherever you need to get to, get there by Friday afternoon and don't plan on leaving."

The snow began falling Friday morning in some areas, with the heaviest amounts falling at night and into Saturday. Wind gusts could reach 75 mph. Widespread power failures were feared, along with flooding in coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy in October.

Boston could get up to 3 feet of snow, while New York City was expecting 10 to 12 inches. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said plows and 250,000 tons of salt were being put on standby. To the south, Philadelphia was looking at a possible 2 to 5 inches.

In the southeast Massachusetts town of Whitman, where up to 30 inches of snow is forecast, public works crews were clearing crosswalk signs, trash barrels and anything else that might impede plows later in the day.

"We've had instances where they have predicted something big and it's petered out," said Dennis Smith, a DPW worker. "I don't think this is going to be one of those times."

 

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Smith's partner, Bob Trumbull, sounded a note of optimism, saying the relative lack of snow earlier this winter would make this storm easier to clean up.

"At least there is room for this snow. There are no snow banks so we will have a place to put it," Trumbull said.

Amtrak said its Northeast trains will stop running Friday afternoon. The organizers of New York's Fashion Week — a closely watched series of fashion shows held under a big tent — said they will have extra crews to help with snow removal and will turn up the heat and add an extra layer to the venue.

Blizzard watch: Morning rush hour pedestrians make their way to work on Delancey St. in New York. IMAGEAP Photo: Mary Altaffer

Blizzard warnings were posted for parts of New Jersey and New York's Long Island, as well as portions of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, including Hartford, New Haven, Conn., and Providence. The warnings extended into New Hampshire and Maine.

In New England, it could prove to be among the top 10 snowstorms in history, and perhaps even break Boston's record of 27.6 inches, set in 2003, forecasters said. The last major snowfall in southern New England was well over a year ago — the Halloween storm of 2011.

Dunham said southern New England has seen less than half its normal snowfall this season, but "we're going to catch up in a heck of a hurry." He added: "Everybody's going to get plastered with snow."

Jack Percoco of Cambridge, Mass. reaches into depleted shelves for milk at a supermarket in Somerville, Mass., Friday, Feb. 8, 2013. A major winter storm is heading toward the U.S. Northeast with up to 2 feet of snow expected for a Boston-area region that has seen mostly bare ground this winter.AP Photo/Elise Amendola

At Stop & Shop supermarket in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Friday morning, there was a line of shoppers outside when it opened at 7 a.m., and a steady stream followed. Checkout lines were long.

Mary Anne DiBello, 44, was stocking up her cart as the snow began to fall.

She said she hosted a sleepover Thursday night with four 9- and 10-year-olds, including her daughter.

"Now I think I'm going to be stuck with them until I bring them to school on Monday," she said, adding her daughter just called her at the store to say the girls were awake.

"I told her, 'Go wake your father.' I'm stuck here."

In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College student Evan Diamond and other members of the ski team were getting ready for races at the Ivy League school's winter carnival.

"We're pretty excited about it because this has been an unusual winter for us," he said. "We've been going back and forth between having really solid cold snaps and then the rain washing everything away."

But he said the snow might be too much of a good thing this weekend: "For skiing, we like to have a nice hard surface, so it will be kind of tough to get the hill ready."

The governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts ordered nonessential state workers to stay home Friday and urged travelers to stay home.

Terrance Rodriguez, a doorman at a luxury apartment complex in Boston, took the forecast in stride.

"It's just another day in Boston. It's to be expected. We're in a town where it's going to snow," he said. "It's like doomsday prep. It doesn't need to be. People just take it to the extreme."

 

Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Lyme, N.H., Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., Jay Lindsay in Gloucester, Mass., and Denise Lavoie, Rodrique Ngowi and Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.

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