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Winter Storm Snarls Air Traffic Throughout Northeast


A massive nor'easter winter storm is still hammering Massachusettes and other parts of New England. Heavy snow and high winds are creating blizzard conditions, making travel difficult and dangerous. The blizzard ended up mostly skirting New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and didn't bring nearly as much snow and wind as expected there. Still, airlines canceled hundreds of flights to those areas ahead of time. As NPR's David Schaper reports, that's forced thousands of travelers to become their own travel agents.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Robert Carlson is sitting in a chair near the ticketing counter at Chicago's O'Hare airport, writing out notes for an important business meeting by hand.

ROBERT CARLSON: This is my presentation written on foolscap paper with a pencil. (Laughter).

SCHAPER: The 68-year-old businessman from England is using pencil and paper because he doesn't have the chip he needs yet for his mobile phone to work here, and he's not on Wi-Fi. Carlson is supposed to be giving that presentation in Albany, and he planned to fly there via New York City yesterday, but his flight from London to New York was canceled.

CARLSON: I got switched to O'Hare. I stayed at a hotel last night, and now I'm trying to get to Albany again. Two flights have been canceled already.

SCHAPER: Carlson's last chance is a fight to Albany tonight. He's one of tens of thousands of people left to improvise because airlines preemptively canceled thousands of flights into and out of New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Boston and other northeastern cities. Oksana Schnayder was in Miami on business Monday when she found out her flight home to New York was canceled.

OKSANA SCHNAYDER: We tried to reschedule. As soon as we reschedule, our flight right away get canceled one after another.

SCHAPER: After staying an extra night in Miami, Schnayder was able to get a flight to Reagan airport in Washington, D.C. From there...

SCHNAYDER: We taking the car - we're renting the car, and we're going to drive up there.

SCHAPER: Driving instead of flying isn't the only option with so many flights canceled. James Williams from Long Island was in New Orleans over the weekend to run a half marathon. His flight home to New York was canceled so he, too, rebooked through Washington, D.C., but that flight was rescheduled for tomorrow.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Instead we were able to catch Amtrak today at noon, so we'll be home 24 hours earlier, so it's worthwhile.

SCHAPER: Most travelers do understand why an act of nature such as a snowstorm can lead airlines to cancel flights. And some say they're glad the airlines take action far ahead of time rather than at the last minute when they're already at the airport. But some wonder if the airlines, in their effort to be proactive, are maybe too quick to pull the trigger on cancellations.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: I've been pretty critical of this because we're seeing a real paradox.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman is an airline industry expert and transportation professor at Chicago's DePaul University.

SCHWIETERMAN: We're getting better at predicting the weather. We're getting better at dealing with weather, yet we're canceling more flights when the weather gets bad. And I think it's the incentives the airlines have that are trumping, maybe, safety concerns.

SCHAPER: One incentive - just a few flight delays at one airport can have a ripple effect through an airline's entire system. Mass cancellations have a ripple effect, too, says Schwieterman, but it keeps pilots, flight crews and planes in place for when the bad weather passes. That way the airline can catch up again much more quickly. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.