A massive winter storm smothered airports on Wednesday, and airlines canceled more than 6,000 flights for the second day in a row. They gave up altogether flying in or out of Chicago, where for a while the only plane landing at O'Hare International carried the Blackhawks hockey team.
Over two days the airlines have canceled more than 13,000 flights, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.com. The cancellations were concentrated at O'Hare, one of the nation's most important air hubs.
The decision by all the major carriers to stop flying in Chicago rippled out to airports around the country, because even travelers who aren't headed to Chicago catch connecting flights there on United or American, which use O'Hare as a hub. And snow and ice hampered flights elsewhere, too, with Southwest Airlines Co. canceling some Wednesday morning flights from Columbus, Ohio, and all of its morning flights from Dallas.
According to FlightAware, 474 flights in and out of Boston were canceled and 639 at New York LaGuardia. Overall, 1,356 flights were scrubbed at the three big New York-area airports because of snow and ice.
American Airlines was doubly troubled by a slowdown at its biggest hub in Dallas after ice coated the runways on Tuesday. The 1,600 cancelations by American and regional partner American Eagle added up to nearly half their schedule, spokesman Tim Smith said.
Most airlines stopped trying to fly at O'Hare by Tuesday night. A charter flight carrying the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team landed around noon. Swift Air loaded the Boeing 737 with extra fuel in case it needed to circle or divert, and found a window in the weather when it could land, said Steve Kasteler, who runs Swift's VIP charters.
The Blackhawks had played in Columbus Tuesday night, and need to be in Vancouver for a game on Friday. "It's critical for them to get home to be in their own beds tonight and get a good night's rest," Kasteler said.
A handful of other charter flights landed at O'Hare later in the afternoon.
Airport snowplows worked all night to try to keep runways open, but they were almost no match for high winds and low visibility. Rosemarie Andolino, commissioner of the city's aviation department, was up in the old control tower that is now used to oversee snowplow and other airport operations. Wind gusts topped 50 mph.
"It was swaying. You can get to a point where you have to evacuate it. We were getting close to that," she said.
Airlines canceled hundreds of their Wednesday flights a day in advance. This avoids having travelers stuck at airports, and makes it easier to station crews and planes in the right places when flights begin again.
United Airlines was planning to resume departures from O'Hare by mid-morning Thursday. It added extra flights on wide-body planes to help get people moving.
"Our maintenance personnel have been out there all day today making sure that the aircraft that are here will be ready for startup in the morning," Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United Continental Holdings Inc., which runs United and Continental.
Airlines scratched more than 4 percent of all their flights between November 2010 and January 2011. Once final January numbers are available, that's likely to be the highest rate of cancellations for that three-month period since 1995-96, according to government data and flight-tracking firm FlightView.
Airlines have canceled more than 13,600 U.S. flights for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, topping the roughly 10,000 cancellations from the massive post-Christmas blizzard.
It's too soon to assess the impact on the airline's bottom lines. Storms in December sliced $10 million from United Continental's fourth-quarter operating profit of $160 million, and that storm shut down Continental operations at its Newark hub for two days.
Airlines are hoping it will be easier to rebook passengers caught in this week's storm, because there are fewer people flying than in the peak holiday period in December.
American had added about 14 extra flights to get people to and from the Super Bowl in Dallas on Sunday. The airline said most of those will fly as planned, since few of them pass through Chicago.
Pittsburgh Steelers fan Ebony Robinson, 24, is trying to make it to Dallas for a Super Bowl party. She was supposed to fly from New York to Washington to Dallas. She took the bus to Washington instead, where she was waiting for her flight at Reagan National Airport on Wednesday. It took her an hour and a half on the phone with U.S. Airways Group Inc. to change the first leg of her flight, but she didn't regret taking the bus instead.
"I'm sure it would have been canceled," she said.
Associated Press Writer Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.