Airlines and rail struggle in storm-struck East

WASHINGTON Mon Aug 29, 2011 5:59am EDT

Tape blocks off an entrance to the Times Square subway station New York, August 27, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Tape blocks off an entrance to the Times Square subway station New York, August 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Airline, rail and other transportation and shipping networks along the storm-battered East Coast struggled to resume operations on Sunday but most would not return to normal until Tuesday at the earliest.

Flooding, wind damage and power outages from Hurricane Irene and related logistics impeded efforts to get the biggest systems back on line for tens of millions of people, especially in New York where the subway and area airports were closed.

Those trains as well as John F Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports, which handle about 6,000 flights daily as the biggest U.S. air travel hub, were to reopen on Monday morning. The nation's most extensive subway service was to begin gradually and pick up as the day wears on.

As the storm moved on, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston handled a limited number of flights. Airline cancellations topped 12,000 since Friday -- virtually the industry's entire schedule for the region, according to online flight tracker Flightaware.com.

"We need time to put airplanes back in place and hope for a limited startup on Monday at those airports," said Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for US Airways, which has heavy operations in the East. "We're focused on the goal of normal operations on Tuesday."

AMTRAK PLANS LIMITED SERVICE

Commuter trains around major cities and passenger railroad Amtrak were halted in the Northeast and struggled to resume operations.

Amtrak crews inspected nearly 400 miles of track and overhead wiring. Most of its schedule from Washington to Philadelphia would go on Monday but service north of that was canceled again due to extensive flooding, debris on tracks and electrical power issues.

That included its premium Acela Express operating between Washington, New York and Boston.

Commuter train service was also uneven in the Northeast. Virginia Railway Express into Washington was expected to run a full schedule. Flooding disrupted some morning service on Philadelphia's SEPTA trains.

PATH trains from New Jersey, important for Wall Street, should be running by Monday morning. But New Jersey Transit canceled most of its rail schedule for Monday and Long Island Railroad service remained suspended Sunday night.

Subways in Boston were expected to resume operations in time for the morning commute.

Other regional transportation infrastructure came back to life along the mid-Atlantic. Busy tunnels and bridges heavily used by commercial trucking reopened.

Interstate 95 through the mid-Atlantic and into the Northeast was clear but a 100-mile stretch of the northbound New York State Thruway, including that side of the Tappan Zee Bridge, was closed due to storm-related problems.

Many secondary roads throughout the Northeast were blocked by fallen trees, downed power lines and flooding.

Virginia State Police responded to 300 traffic accidents related to the storm, officials said.

The FAA said airport control towers in the Northeast escaped damage and were staffed. Runways were inspected and cleared for operation.

RECOVERY WILL TAKE TIME

However, controllers had to wait for airport terminals to reopen and airlines to restart their schedules.

"The extent of this is a multiple of what you've seen in the worst snowstorms," said Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co, a former airline executive and now a consultant.

"Once the (Port Authority) says they're open for business, you've got to repopulate the operation. Take aircraft and crews and plug them back in."

Delta Air Lines canceled 13 percent of its systemwide flight schedule between Saturday and Monday. Others heavily affected included US Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, and JetBlue Airways.

JetBlue, based at JFK, canceled 1,200 flights due to the storm. It planned to restart Northeast operations on Monday afternoon.

But normalizing operations depends as much on resumption of rail, road and transit services as it does flight schedules and runway conditions. JetBlue has 4,000 crewmembers living or based in New York or Boston.

Other airlines face similar situations.

New York air traffic controller Dean Iacopelli expects airlines will spend Monday repositioning planes moved to other cities during the storm. "Traffic will be coming from different directions that we do not normally see," he said.

Container ships that rode out the storm at sea headed for mid-Atlantic ports that were closed. Terminals gradually reopened and hoped to resume normal operations by late on Sunday or Monday.

Cruise ships adjusted schedules as well. Carnival Corp pushed back departure of the Pride on its weekly cruise from Baltimore by one day to Monday.

(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla in New York and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Todd Eastham)