NEW YORK (AP) — Travelers across the country are facing days of grief ahead as thousands of flights get canceled because of Hurricane Irene.
Airlines are scrapping more than 9,000 flights this weekend from North Carolina to Boston, grounding passengers as Irene sweeps up the East Coast. There were more than 3,600 cancellations on Saturday alone.
All New York City-area airports closed to arriving flights at noon on Saturday, when the city's public transportation system shut down. The biggest airlines, United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., canceled thousands of flights each. United Continental, the world's largest airline, suspended operations altogether in the New York area. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport were both open Saturday afternoon, but most flights had been canceled.
Airlines declined to say how many passengers would be affected by the hurricane, but the numbers will likely reach into the millions. That's because so many flights, both domestic and international, make connections through major East Coast hub airports. Even passengers not flying anywhere near the East coast could be delayed for days as airlines work to get planes and crews back into position.
Train and bus service was also cut back. Greyhound suspended service between Richmond, Va. and Boston for the weekend. Amtrak reduced its Northeast schedule Saturday and canceled all trains from Washington to Boston Sunday. Amtrak has five main routes throughout the Northeast, each serving multiple cities, as well as regional service in Virginia and several long-distance trains that start and end in the area.
Hurricane-force winds first arrived near Jacksonville, North Carolina, at dawn. At around 7:30 a.m. EDT, the center of the storm — estimated to be about 500 miles wide — passed over North Carolina's Outer Banks. The hurricane's vast reach traced the East Coast from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to just below Cape Cod. Tropical storm conditions battered Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, with the worst to come.
Airlines were last hit with a natural disaster this winter, when they canceled thousands of flights ahead of a pair of massive snowstorms. The storms in December and February led to more than 10,000 cancellations over several days and left many thousands of people stranded at airports.
Airlines have been filling their flights much closer to capacity over the last year in an effort to become more efficient. That makes it harder for stranded passengers to find empty seats on new flights once the weather gets better. Airlines waived ticket-change fees for most East Coast travelers affected by the storm. Some pushed off the $150 penalties for as much as a week to encourage travelers to make new arrangements.
American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said the airline has already canceled some flights for Monday. The airline, owned by AMR Corp., is aiming to resume flights in North Carolina and Virginia after noon Sunday. She said it wasn't yet clear when flights in and out of New York would resume.
"The one thing about a hurricane is that you can prepare for it and you just have to adapt your plan based on how the storm travels," Huguely said. "It's basically an educated guessing game."