Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY
Hurricane Sandy has paralyzed travel for roughly a sixth of the nation's population, and nobody is certain when stranded passengers can get back on jetliners, Amtrak trains or even subways along the Eastern Seaboard.
Travel screeched to a halt Monday in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as airlines grounded more than 13,000 flights, major airports from Washington, D.C., to Massachusetts closed, Amtrak shut down East Coast service and big city transit authorities closed the doors on subway trains and buses.
Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration, Amtrak and governors from New York to Maryland said they'd need to assess damage and storm surges before they consider flying again or reopening public transit.
The chaos spread beyond the Northeast. Airline cancellations rippled across the nation's air travel network and disrupted international travel as foreign carriers avoided the Northeast United States. Canada's third-biggest airline, Porter Airlines, for instance, canceled all Toronto flights, about 90% of its schedule. And all of US Airways' trans-Atlantic flights destined for Philadelphia, a hub, were forced to remain in Europe until Wednesday.
The potentially historic storm, which struck the coast on late Monday, could end up costing the country millions of dollars in damage and delayed travel and commerce. The Global Business Travel Association says the cost of lost travel could exceed $600 million. And that's on the conservative side, says Joe Bates, vice president of Global Business Travel Association.
"This is the hub of business travel activity in the United States," Bates says. "It's going to have a ripple effect across the United States."
President Obama sounded a similar concern on Monday. "I'm worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation," he said during a hurricane update at the White House.
According to travel-monitoring site FlightAware.com Monday afternoon, 1,301 flights had been canceled on Sunday, 6,938 on Monday, and 2,954 for today.
Indicative of the cancellations: US Aiways canceled 1,641 flights systemwide on Monday, slightly more than half of its daily flights. Spokesman Todd Lehmacher says the airline is hoping to resume operations Wednesday morning.
United canceled 3,700 flights scheduled from Sunday through Wednesday - 16% of its trips systemwide - says airline spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.
American Airlines and its regional carrier, American Eagle, canceled 140 flights on Sunday and an additional 1,431 flights scheduled for Monday through Wednesday in cities throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The carrier predicts it will resume operations midday Wednesday.
Airlines were waiving change fees, which are typically about $150.
While airport terminals typically remain "open" for fliers even in extreme conditions, Sandy forced flight operations at many airports to grind to a trickle - if not an outright halt.
Flights in and out of New York's three airports - LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty - were suspended most of Monday except for emergencies. The virtual shutdown of the nation's busiest airspace had a domino effect across the country. Some 500 flights were canceled out of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports.
Flight cancellations spread because airlines depend on planes and flight crews to handle multiple flight legs each day.
Because so many flights flow through the New York region, the storm threatened not only direct flights but any planes and crews passing through airports with massive cancellations, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington's Dulles and Reagan National.
For example, 81 departures and 84 arrivals were canceled at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, representing 10% of the typical daily flights, according to FlightAware. Only 52 Los Angeles flights were canceled Sunday and 62 for today. There could be further cancellations deep into the week as airlines determine when they can resume full operations on the East Coast again, says Mark Duell of FlightAware.
"It's not so much what's happening in the next couple of days when all these flights are canceled," says Robert Herbst, a former airline pilot who became an independent consultant as founder of AirlineFinancials.com. "Then comes the nightmare of trying to reposition all the flight crews and all the aircraft where they originally need to be for a schedule that is set up weeks in advance."
Flight attendant Heather Poole, author of the book Cruising Attitude, took a 4 p.m. Sunday flight from LaGuardia to Miami then was stranded there. She's tentatively due to fly back Wednesday. After seeing photos of flooded runways at LaGuardia, she wonders if she actually will get back on Wednesday.
Plus, she says, "It's not just about the planes being ready. It's the crews being able to get to the airport."
Flooding could be the biggest obstacle to a quick return to the skies, experts say.
"We don't know what the airports will look like," after the storm, says Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, which offers air travel assistance. "The big thing I'm looking at is flooding. This thing is so big and we have a number of important airports in the Northeast that sit right on water. ... Are they really going to be able to open (Tuesday) or Wednesday depending on how much flooding there is around the airports?"
Flights aren't only problem
The situation wasn't any better on rails, streets and subways along the East Coast.
Amtrak canceled nearly all service on the Northeast Corridor on Monday and for today. Several bus lines, including Boltbus and Megabus, suspended service along the East Coast on Monday and for today. Amtrak and some of the bus lines are allowing passengers to rebook without penalty, or get refunds
New York's subway, rail and bus system - the largest in North America with more than 8.5 million riders a day - shut down on Sunday. The Metropolitan Transit Authority says it's only the second time in history that it shut the entire system in advance because of weather. And it was unclear when it would reopen.
"Service will be restored only when it is safe to do so, after careful inspections of all equipment and tracks," the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said on its website. "Even with minimal damage, this is expected to be a lengthy process."
New Jersey Transit also suspended all bus, rail, light rail and Access Link service. There was no getting around on Washington's Metro system, either, which carries roughly 1.5 million riders a day, or on Philadelphia's public transit network, which provides service to 770,000 people each day. Local transportation authorities in those areas were also uncertain when service would resume.
Many tourist sites also were closed even if travelers could have gotten to them.
Nancy Ilk had been scheduled to fly out of Washington's Reagan National Airport to Minneapolis/St. Paul at 1:30 p.m. Monday. On Saturday night, she got an e-mail from United Airlines notifying her that her flight was canceled. She was rebooked on a late afternoon flight today from Washington to Chicago to Minneapolis. But she didn't have high hopes for making it out.
And there was not much for her to do in Washington. "Normally I would love getting stuck in D.C., my favorite city, but unfortunately everything is shut down. Metro, Smithsonian, so (I'm) just holed up in a hotel watching storm coverage on TV and getting a bit bored," she says.
Tourist attractions were closed up and down the East Coast, including Broadway theaters in New York City, Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
Nashville residents Cortney Levin, 28, and her husband, Erik, were stranded in New York after their Sunday night American flight didn't take off. The airline told them they'd be stuck there until Thursday at the earliest, Levin says.
On top of that, the apartment building where they had been staying on the lower tip of Manhattan has been evacuated. "Everything is closed, and there's no one in the streets," she says.
They were scrambling to find alternate housing on Monday. Luckily, a Facebook plea landed them an invitation from an old friend in the Chelsea neighborhood. But that didn't completely make up for missing Halloween with their 2½-year-old twins back home.
Hotels were quickly filled with stranded travelers. Marriott's 14-hotel operation in New York was juggling a complex mix of stranded travelers, evacuation orders and a limited staff.
Marriott's biggest hotel in Manhattan - the New York Marriott Marquis in the middle of Times Square - last night sold about 1,700 of its 1,957 rooms, says Kathy Duffy, Marriott's New York spokeswoman.
Some travel companies offered some relief. Orbitz, for instance, was giving travelers a 15% discount on mobile hotel bookings. The Ritz-Carlton Washington and The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown were offering reduced Hurricane Sandy rates.
Why cancel flights so soon?
Many stranded travelers questioned why airlines canceled flights even before a single rain drop fell.
But analysts say by doing so, the airlines avoided stranding even more passengers, planes and crews at airports.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says his own flight Monday from New York to Los Angeles was canceled on Saturday, even though he could see no rain nor feel a breeze on Monday morning.
"In this case, a lot of airlines kept their planes out of New York or they moved them out of New York," Hobica says. "In that sense, I think it's going to be less disruptive than it has been in past years."
Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the industry group Airlines for America, says reducing the schedules enables carriers "to recover more quickly when it is safe to resume operations."
That was no solace to federal government worker Aaron Testa, 29, of Arlington, Va., who tried in vain to get home Monday after his US Airways flight from Cleveland was canceled.
When he finally got through to a reservations agent, he says, he was booked on a flight today - only to see it canceled 30 minutes later. "I'm trying to relax, but it's stressful not having a plan," he says.
The 33 members of the Happy Travelers Club of South Carolina didn't seem stressed out as they waited out the storm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near Washington's Dulles airport.
Informed that their tour bus would not be returning to South Carolina until Thursday, the group was making the best of a not-so-bad situation.
"Hey, there's food. We're indoors. And we're not in North Carolina," says Mona Dukes of Johnsonville, S.C. "We're just gonna roll with it and have a good time."