Major storms snarl holiday air travel

Times Staff Writers

Travel woes piled up at the nation's airports Thursday as western snowstorms shut a key hub in Denver for a second day, creating a ripple effect that stranded passengers from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

United Airlines alone canceled 2,000 flights nationwide.

That left as many as 10,000 people scrambling for alternative routes out of Los Angeles International Airport, or waiting until Denver International Airport reopens two of six runways at noon today -- on what was already expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the Christmas season.

After the Denver airport was pelted by more than 2 feet of snow, its shutdown generated no shortage of horror stories: weary passengers flying for five hours, only to have their flight return to the city they left from; travelers on a frantic quest for lost luggage stuffed with gifts; others fearing they would miss spending the holidays with family and friends.

After learning that his 7:30 p.m. flight to Washington Dulles International Airport had been canceled, Pasadena resident Thomas Bane drove to LAX on Thursday morning in hopes of getting on another airplane. The Orbitz Internet booking site told him it didn't have alternatives Thursday or Friday. By early afternoon, he had spent three hours in an LAX ticket line.

"My fiancee said when I finally get to the counter I have to tell them that my fiancee will cry if I don't make it to Virginia to spend Christmas with her family," Bane, 23, said. "I'm going to try that. I'm hoping for the best but expecting the worst."

Indeed, the one-two punch of frightful weather and already-overbooked holiday flights led airlines to warn they would be hard-pressed to get travelers home before Christmas Eve, at the earliest.

"Because of the severity of the storm and the duration, we're anticipating it could take us several days to get all customers whose flights were canceled to their destination," said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, which considers Denver its second-busiest hub. LAX is the carrier's fifth-busiest.

Airlines urged travelers to go to an airport only if they have confirmed that their flight is operating and that they have a reservation. United automatically rebooks travelers whose flights are canceled and is giving them until Wednesday to change a reservation without penalty.

Other carriers, such as Frontier, which routes nearly all of its flights through Denver, do not automatically rebook passengers and rely on them to make alternative plans.

"We're getting crushed at our call center," said Joe Hodas, a Frontier spokesman. "We're having 50,000 people trying to rebook, and a lot of folks are having a tough time getting through."

It was also a chaotic day for British Airways, due to a different kind of weather crisis a continent away. The airline was forced to cancel all European and domestic flights when fog shrouded runways at several airports in Britain.

Thousands of travelers trying to leave or pass through London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's largest international hubs, were forced to bed down in the corridors and at the gates Wednesday and Thursday nights as surrounding hotels quickly filled.

The airlines estimated that 350 flights from Heathrow were held up Thursday night, disrupting the travel plans of about 50,000 passengers.

Los Angeles' airport agency predicts that more than 1.75 million passengers will pass through LAX from today through Jan. 2, up slightly over the same period last year. About 200,000 travelers are forecast for Ontario International, which the agency also operates.

Regional airports from Santa Ana to Long Beach to Burbank were already experiencing long lines Thursday and urged travelers to arrive at least two hours before a domestic flight.

"It's going to be a zoo around here," said Lucy Burghdorf, community relations manager at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport. "All the airlines are saying they're booked."

Southwest Airlines, which provides 70% of the airport's flights, saw a 35% jump in passengers this week. The airline, which typically serves 5,000 passengers daily, expects to handle 6,800 today. On Wednesday and Thursday, United had canceled eight flights to Denver from Bob Hope.

Travelers at John Wayne Airport were also coping with canceled flights Thursday. Santa Ana residents Dorothy Stumm, 73, and her daughter, Jenevieve Stumm, 32, waited 12 hours for options to fly to Denver on their way to Sioux City, Iowa. To prepare for their trip to visit Dorothy's first great-granddaughter, they had knitted scarves and matching hats for themselves and 3-week-old Elena.

"It's extremely frustrating," Dorothy Stumm said. "There's nothing available anywhere. Were out of luck."

Instead, the Stumms decided to pack their belongings into her Honda and drive east, hoping to make it to Iowa in time for Christmas.

Like other Southern California travelers, the Stumms learned the hard way how major storms can tie the nation's complex airline system in knots. Personnel needed for flight crews in distant cities can be stranded at snowbound airports. Or, because of disrupted schedules, they can be barred from flying by federal rules that limit a pilot's time in the cockpit.

Aircraft can be a particular headache. A plane scheduled to fly passengers from Los Angeles to Miami in the evening, for example, may start the day in Boston and have a scheduled stop in Denver on its way to the West Coast.

"The sun is shining in L.A. and the sun is shining in Miami -- what does that snowstorm in Denver have to do with you?" said fare expert Terry Trippler. "Well, your plane may be stuck on the ground in Denver."

Travelers stranded at Denver International on Thursday -- after the high Plains endured a 48-hour pounding from the worst snowstorm in years -- had a bird's-eye view of stranded aircraft. The blizzard, which dumped 25 inches of snow, shut down the nation's sixth-busiest airport for only the third time in more than a decade. About 4,700 stranded travelers shared their frustrations, played cards and tried to come up with novel ways to pass the time.

"My kids thought it sounded pretty cool -- sleepover at the airport," said Rick Hull, an attorney from Boulder who was pulled off his flight to New York when the airport closed Wednesday afternoon. "But that floor was a little hard."

A thousand miles away in San Francisco, travelers also were facing a double weather whammy: While many waited to board delayed or canceled flights to Denver, Chicago and the East Coast, a rainstorm forced at least an hour's delay on most incoming flights.

Mike Tolle, duty manager at San Francisco International Airport, said up to 125 travelers spent the night at the airport after flights to Denver were canceled. He said officials would be ready if the travel nightmare stretched to two nights. "We have custodians who will hand out pillows and blankets," he said.

Tom Ballanco was beginning to feel like the Tom Hanks character in the movie "Terminal." First his flight to Denver from San Francisco was canceled Wednesday. He spent the night at a friend's house. Then he returned to the airport and bought a ticket to New York, only to be told that the flight was delayed four hours.

"It would be nice to take it out on the airport workers, but what can they do?" he asked as he checked e-mail on his BlackBerry.

Frustrated travelers repeatedly asked ticket agents why it was so difficult for airlines to accommodate them. Financially troubled carriers have sharply reduced flights in the last few years, leaving planes routinely more than 85% full -- a situation made even worse by the holiday. A shortage of empty seats means it's tougher for travelers to rebook flights.

Say a traveler was flying from L.A. to Kansas City on United with a connection in Denver. In the past, if the Denver flight was canceled, he probably could book a flight to Kansas City on American through that carrier's hub at Dallas-Fort Worth International.

These days, available seats on that alternative flight would probably be very scarce.

Airlines are also much less likely than they were several years ago to pick up hotel and restaurant bills for stranded passengers -- another result of industry cost-cutting.

So, travel experts counseled patience for travelers, saying the tales of woe are likely to be repeated at airports nationwide through the holiday weekend.

"This isn't going to be straightened out until Tuesday," said Trippler, the fare expert. "The bottom line is, there are a lot of people who are just going to have to stay home, and there are a lot of people who are going to have a dickens of a time getting home."


Times staff writers contributing to this report were John M. Glionna in San Francisco, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver, Janet Stobart in London, Mai Tran in Santa Ana and Martin Zimmerman.




Travelers expected Thursday at closed Denver International Airport.



LAX travelers at least temporarily grounded.

Source: Times staff and wire reports

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