Airlines began to cancel flights and get
planes out of the way as Hurricane Irene barreled toward the U.S. mainland on
The storm will likely force hundreds of
flights to be cancelled through this weekend and create delays that could
ripple across the country.
Airlines said passengers could rebook those
trips to many East Coast destinations, from Boston to the Carolinas, for free.
American Airlines and its American Eagle
affiliate, with an extensive network in the Caribbean, canceled 126 flights on
Thursday. Most were in the Bahamas and south Florida, including Miami, a
jumping-off spot for flights to the Caribbean and Latin America.
Delta Air Lines reported four cancelations,
and United one. Those and other airlines were watching Irene’s path before
deciding how many flights to scrub and where on Friday.
Even before Irene’s arrival, unrelated
thunderstorms were causing delays of up to two hours Thursday at major airports
in the New York and Washington areas, according to flight-tracking service
FlightAware. The service’s CEO, Daniel Baker, predicted that Irene-related
cancelations would pick up Friday afternoon and become significant on Saturday.
Thatâ€s when the storm is expected to come ashore in North Carolina.
The airlines’ preparation reflects a new
approach to dealing with big storms. In recent years, they have waived
ticket-change fees and canceled flights long before storms arrive. That has
helped reduce the number of travelers and flight crews who get stranded at
airports. Canceling flights ahead of time keeps planes out of the path of
damaging storms and lets airlines resume normal schedules more quickly after
the bad weather passes.
But sheltering planes far from a storm
carries risks. If the storm changes path and misses big airports, hundreds of
flights will have been canceled unnecessarily.
Irene presents another challenge. Because
major travel hubs such as Washington and New York are in its potential path,
flights that are canceled or delayed there tend to ripple across the country.
“Most everyone expects New York to get
hit, so you’re obviously not going to leave a lot of planes on the ground in New
York, waiting for a problem,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American
He said all the airline’s Thursday flights
in the Bahamian capital of Nassau were canceled and there were delays in Miami
due to heavy rain. He said the airline would track forecasts before making
decisions about cancelations for Friday.
The airlines announced policies for
changing trips free of the normal ticket-change charges.
Travelers on American going to 14 cities from
Boston to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., could delay trips as late as Sept. 7 without
penalty. Policies on Delta and United Continental were more restrictive at
The offers were too late for some travelers
whose long-planned trips turned soggy.
Noelia Chacon of Spain, touring the East
Coast with her husband and son, were evacuated from the Smithsonian in
Washington after Tuesday’s earthquake and now might limit their New York
sightseeing because of Irene. Their tickets and hotel in Newark, N.J., are
“We’ve had an earthquake and a
hurricane so far. We’ll see what’s next,” Chacon said, as rain fogged the
windows of the hotel lobby. “This is a trip we will not soon forget.”