Source: NY Times
Authors: Robbie Brown and Christopher Drew
The airline system in the Northeast slowly started to come back to life on Wednesday, but not quickly enough for Michelle Gippin. She flew into Newark Liberty International Airport from Frankfurt two days late, and then was told she could not get a connecting flight home to Cleveland until Friday or Saturday.
“They did say that once the system was up and running, it will happen pretty fast,” she said. “The problem is that so many airports were shut down that the backlog was unbelievable. And it was just a stroke of luck that I was able to inch my way this far.”
Like Ms. Gippin, travelers who were unlucky enough to be heading home during Hurricane Sandy were caught in the midst of the airlines’ struggle to get their schedules back to normal. The airlines had moved their planes and crews out of harm’s way before the storm. But it was not an easy task for the airlines to restart the system afterward. Thousands of travelers had to deal with long waits on the phone or at the airport to rebook their flights.
Adding to the challenges of this storm, said Dave Holtz, the vice president for operations control for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, was that many of the airline employees in New York could not get to work because public transportation was largely shut down on Wednesday. That meant the carrier not only needed to get its flight crews in place, but it was also flying Atlanta-based technology specialists and customer service agents to New York to deal with customers, Mr. Holtz said.
He predicted that all flights would be back to normal within the next two days. The first Delta flights into Kennedy Airport in New York began at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and the airline expected to reach full capacity (92 flights a day in and another 92 out) on Thursday.
Delta’s first flights into Newark began at 3 p.m. on Wednesday and were set to reach full capacity (18 flights in, 18 out) on Thursday. And its first flights into La Guardia Airport, which was the hardest-hit of the three New York-area airports because of flooding, were scheduled to start Thursday at 7 a.m.
The airline expected to reach full capacity (80 flights) by Thursday afternoon. Planes have been flying out of Philadelphia since Tuesday.
“From a traveler’s perspective, I think we’re within one or two days from being back to normal,” Mr. Holtz said. “There will probably be longer lines. But in terms of running at full capacity, we should be back by then.”
The other airlines were following much the same playbook.
Mr. Holtz works at the Delta Operations Control Center in Atlanta, a three-story red-brick office building where some 270 employees were working around the clock to get airplanes flying again.
The office was largely quiet except for the sound of giant television monitors showing CNN and Fox, beside screens showing weather forecasts and flight arrival and departure data.
Mr. Holtz described the work at the center as putting together a giant puzzle that was constantly changing. “Imagine it as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are slid under your door every day,” he said. “Some pieces fall away and our guys spend the whole day putting together the rest until it fits.”
He said that the airline was offering vouchers that allowed passengers to reschedule flights at a time that was convenient, a better system, he said, than the airline automatically bumping passengers to a particular flight. “It’s our job to put a predictable outcome in a customer’s hand,” he added.
The scene at the Newark airport on Wednesday afternoon showed the difficulties in getting the system running again. Most of the initial flights coming in or out were international ones. And many of the arriving passengers found that there were not yet any domestic flights to take them the rest of the way home.
Rochelle Obechina, 45, the host of a morning drive-time radio show in Aspen, Colo., was returning from running a marathon — in near-blizzard conditions, as it happened — in Lausanne, Switzerland. After her original flight back was canceled by the storm here, she took a train to Geneva, where a friend who had lived in Switzerland found a place for her to stay Tuesday night through a post on Facebook.
She reached Newark at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon on United Airlines, only to find that the airline could not confirm her on a flight to Denver before Friday. After she told the ticket agent that she had to get home to deal with a family emergency, she was given a seat on a 6:49 a.m. flight to Denver on Thursday.
But there was a catch. That flight had not yet been assigned a gate, the agent told her, and could still be canceled. “So I have a seat on a plane that has no gate,” she said, sitting near a host of empty baggage carousels.
Ms. Obechina said she would sleep in the airport in the hope that the flight would go. She said the attendants on the flight from Geneva had warned her that she would have trouble finding a flight to Denver.
“I feel like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal,’ “ she said, referring to a 2004 movie about a man trapped in a terminal at Kennedy when he was denied entry to the United States but could not return to his native country. “He was caught between two countries, and I’m caught between two terminals and which gate.”
Still, Newark airport seemed fairly lively compared with the ghost town that it had been on Tuesday afternoon, when the airport was still without power. At that time, Terminals A and C were dark and eerily quiet, with Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” blaring through the loudspeakers to entertain the lonely guards.
The airport had gathered all the passengers stranded during the storm, with about 65 of them sleeping on cots in a guarded area on Monday night. The power came back on late Tuesday afternoon. And even though the airport reopened at 7 a.m. Wednesday with a welcome blaze of lighting, the first planes to arrive were cargo carriers and jetliners bringing in air crews and extra ticket agents.
Diana Williams, a customer care representative for the airport, said her fellow red-jacketed aides “were straggling in because there was no bus service.” Many were also dealing with flooding and damage at their own homes and trying to arrange rides to work.
And the electronic flight information monitors, flickering back to life after a day and a half of blankness, summed up the situation pretty well.
United’s displays listed more than two dozen international flights arriving or departing, and a smattering of arrivals expected from other American cities. But as of late Wednesday afternoon, only a couple of domestic departures were listed.
Ms. Gippin, the woman who arrived from Frankfurt, said representatives there from United had cautioned the two dozen standby passengers that they should only take the flight to Newark if that was their final destination. But, she said, “I just wanted to get back to the United States.”