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After Superstorm Sandy, flights canceled but no airport chaos

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Enter Sandy.

Airlines have spent the past few days running though color-coded checklists to shut down their Northeast operations. Computers were covered in plastic tarps. Hotel rooms near airports were booked for gate agents and ramp workers. Planes, pilots and flight attendants were moved to other airports.

At a glance

How to handle a flight cancellation

Hurricane Sandy has made landfall in the U.S., but its effects on air travelers are being felt throughout the globe. Airlines say it will take days for them to resume service to normal levels, so your upcoming flight may be affected.

Here’s what you can do if your flight is canceled:

Don’t go to the airport.

To avoid getting stranded at the airport, check your flight’s status early the day you’re flying, and again right before you head to the airport.

If you’re already at the airport when your flight is canceled, put your legs and fingers to work. Walk over to customer service. While there, dial the customer service number. Odds are you’ll get help over the phone before reaching the front of the line. Still, in the case of Sandy, the best you might do is a cot, like those the Port Authority is promising to supply to stranded travelers.

You can try asking for assistance via Twitter. Most airlines task employees with monitoring their Twitter feed. However, for this storm, JetBlue has requested that people in need of help call the airline. Other airlines could do the same.

There are also a couple of financial basics to be aware of.

The airlines have waived change fees, typically $150, for flights delayed or canceled due to the storm. But keep in mind that airlines usually only waive this fee once. Be certain you want to change your itinerary before you lock it in. Otherwise, you’ll be out $150 if you have to make a second change. You also might pay more for a difference in the flight’s price.

If you cancel your booking altogether, the airline might offer you a voucher for a future flight. You can ask for cash instead.

Also, the airline isn’t responsible to pay for a hotel room or food if you’re stranded due to weather.

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And — don’t worry — shelter was found for livestock traveling as cargo.

"Anything that could move by the wind, we’ve locked down," said Henry Kuykendall, who oversees operations for Delta Air Lines at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The airlines’ in-house meteorologists started tracking this storm more than a week ago as it approached the Caribbean. By Thursday night, it was pretty clear that widespread cancelations would happen in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The next day, airlines started to waive fees for passengers who wanted to move to earlier or later flights. American Airlines, for instance, let travelers heading to any of 22 airports — from Greensboro, N.C. in the south to Buffalo, N.Y. in the north — change plans. Then teams started to cancel flights heading into or out of airports stretching from Washington to Boston.

That sounds easier than it is. Every plane in its fleet is in near constant motion. In one day, a single plane might fly from Atlanta to New York to Detroit — and then back to Atlanta and then once more to New York.

If the airline doesn’t want that plane to spend the night in New York, it has ripple effects throughout the system. For instance, that plane might have been scheduled the next day to fly passengers to Seattle and then on to San Francisco.

When Sandy hit, almost no planes were left in the Northeast.

• JetBlue scattered the majority of its planes to 20 different airports across the country, even though 80 percent of its flights start or end in New York or Boston.

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• American Airlines moved 80 planes that were supposed to spend Sunday night in the Northeast to other airports.

One Boeing 737 didn’t make it out of Boston in time because of a mechanical issue. Left with no other solution, American filled the plane with fuel to make it as heavy as possible, faced it toward the wind, locked the wheels and moved it away from anything else.

"We’ll keep our fingers crossed," said Jon Snook, the airline’s vice president of operations planning and performance.

Delta got all of its planes out of New York. The last plane took off at 1:01 a.m. Monday — a Boeing 757 with 157 people on board heading to Georgetown, Guiana. US Airways held all but one of its Transatlantic planes bound for Philadelphia at European airports. And United Airlines removed all but about a dozen planes from its Washington Dulles and Newark, N.J., hubs.

Once the clouds clear, flights won’t start up immediately.

JetBlue’s Maruster equated starting up the airline again to be like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s not about staffing levels, but an overall game plan that makes sense. "At a certain point, putting more hands on the table doesn’t help get it solved faster," he said.

The airlines need to ask a lot of questions before bringing in planes.

First, are the runways open? New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports both had water flow onto the runways.

Next, is there public transit to get workers to the airport? If not, does the airline have enough staff staying at nearby hotels that can be bused in?

Finally, the airline has to check on all the other people needed to run an airport: the Transportation Security Administration, customs officials, caters, fuel trucks and even the people who push wheelchairs through the terminal.

"Before we can even move an airplane here, we need to make sure those resources are here," said Delta’s Kuykendall. "There’s a lot of moving pieces that people don’t see. It’s a dance to get it all to work."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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