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Airlines learn to cope with chaos

31 OCT 2012: Chaos at airports? Not really. Not long ago, a powerful storm pounding the Northeast would have brought havoc to some of the nation's busiest airports. Families sleeping on the floor amidst mounds of luggage, passengers stuck for hours on planes hoping to take off; and dinners cobbled together from near-empty vending machines. No more.

True, Superstorm Sandy grounded more than 18,000 flights across the Northeast and the globe, more than 7,000 flights were cancelled on Tuesday alone, and it will take days before travel gets back to normal. But unlike other incidents of delay and cancellation, in the aftermath of Sandy, airports from Washington to Boston are deserted. There are hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded across the US and around the world, but instead of camping out inside airport terminals they are staying with friends and family or in hotels.

Cancellations and delays continue Delays rippled across the US, affecting travellers from San Francisco to Atlanta. Some passengers attempting to fly out of Europe and Asia also were stuck. New York's three big airports remain shut because of the storm, this is the nation's busiest airspace, so cancellations there can dramatically affect travel in other cities. It was possible that John F. Kennedy airport would re-open for flights on Wednesday, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It wasn't known when the LaGuardia and Newark, airports would reopen. Flying began to resume at other airports. Delta started flying from Boston, Washington Dulles and Reagan on Tuesday. Airline spokesman Morgan Durrant said it would resume domestic flights from JFK on Wednesday.

Keep them away After years of storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, US airlines have rewritten their severe weather playbooks. They've learned that it's best to cancel flights early and keep the public away from airports, even if that means they'll have a bigger backlog to deal with once conditions improve. This allows the airlines to tell gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews to stay home, too - keeping them fresh once they're needed again.

Get the planes to safety And by moving planes to airports outside of the storm's path, airlines can protect their equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes and airports reopen. These precautions make good business sense. They also help the airlines comply with new government regulations that impose steep fines for leaving passengers stuck on planes for three hours or more. ``The last few major storms created such gridlock, and such bad will with their best customers, they just had to shift their behaviour,'' said Kate Hanni, who heads up the passenger advocacy group Flyers Rights and lobbied for the three-hour rule. ``The flying public would rather have their flights pre-cancelled than be sleeping in Chicago on a cot.'' Departure monitors at airports across the Northeast Monday and Tuesday reflected that new approach. •    London: Cancelled. •    Seattle: Cancelled. •    Los Angeles: Cancelled. •    Hong Kong: Cancelled. •    Houston: Cancelled. And the number of cancellations is likely to rise.

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