NEW YORK — Hurricane Sandy has left more than 18,000 flight cancellations in its wake.
Chaos at airports? Hardly.
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.
In the aftermath of Sandy, airports from Washington to Boston are deserted. There are hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded across the U.S. and around the world, but instead of camping out inside airport terminals they are staying with friends and family or in hotels.
After years of storm mismanagement and the bad public relations that followed, U.S. 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.
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 behavior," 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.
Los Angeles: Canceled.
Hong Kong: Canceled.
And the number of cancellations is likely to rise.
"It will probably take until the weekend for things to return to normal," said Rob Maruster, the chief operating officer of JetBlue Airways, which is based in New York.
Even "normal" won't be perfect. Passengers are reporting multi-hour wait times at most airline call centers and they are likely to experience long lines once airports reopen.
JetBlue is keenly aware of what is at stake when a big storm hits. On Valentine's Day weekend 2007, a massive snowstorm hammered the East Coast. JetBlue was late to cancel flights. Passengers were stranded on planes for hours. When the storm finally cleared, other airlines resumed flights but JetBlue's operations were still in shambles.
Other airlines took note. Severe weather manuals were updated. Reservation systems were programmed to automatically rebook passengers when flights are canceled. And travelers now receive notifications by email, phone or text message.
"In past years, airlines would have soldiered on, trying to get their planes in the air no matter what," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. But they've learned that "there's no value in news cameras showing footage of people sleeping on cots in airports."
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