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."
Airlines spent days before the storm hit running though color-coded checklists to shut down their Northeast operations. Computers were covered in plastic tarps. Hotel rooms near airports were booked for gate agents and ramp workers. Planes, pilots and flight attendants were moved to other airports.
And — don't worry — shelter was found for animals traveling as cargo.
"Anything that could move by the wind, we've locked down," said Henry Kuykendall, who oversees operations for Delta Air Lines at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The airlines' in-house meteorologists started tracking this storm more than a week ago as it approached the Caribbean. By Thursday night, it was pretty clear that widespread cancelations would happen in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The next day, airlines started to waive fees for passengers who wanted to move to earlier or later flights. American Airlines, for instance, let travelers heading to any of 22 airports — from Greensboro, N.C. in the south to Buffalo, N.Y. in the north — change plans. Then teams started to cancel flights heading into or out of airports stretching from Washington to Boston.
That sounds easier than it is. Every plane in its fleet is in near constant motion. In one day, a single plane might fly from Atlanta to New York to Detroit — and then back to Atlanta and then once more to New York.
If the airline doesn't want that plane to spend the night in New York, it has ripple effects throughout the system. For instance, that plane might have been scheduled the next day to fly passengers to Seattle and then on to San Francisco.
When Sandy hit, almost no planes were left in the Northeast.
JetBlue scattered the majority of its planes to 20 different airports across the country, even though 80 percent of its flights start or end in New York or Boston.
American Airlines moved 80 planes that were supposed to spend Sunday night in the Northeast to other airports.
One Boeing 737 didn't make it out of Boston in time because of a mechanical issue. Left with no other solution, American filled the plane with fuel to make it as heavy as possible, faced it toward the wind, locked the wheels and moved it away from anything else.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed," said Jon Snook, the airline's vice president of operations planning and performance.
Delta got all of its planes out of New York. The last plane took off at 1:01 a.m. Monday — a Boeing 757 with 157 people on board heading to Georgetown, Guyana. US Airways held all but one of its Transatlantic planes bound for Philadelphia at European airports. And United Airlines removed all but about a dozen planes from its Washington Dulles and Newark, N.J., hubs.
Once the clouds clear, flights won't start up immediately.
JetBlue's Maruster equated starting up the airline again to be like putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It's not about staffing levels, but an overall game plan that makes sense. "At a certain point, putting more hands on the table doesn't help get it solved faster," he said.
The airlines need to ask a lot of questions before bringing in planes.
First, are the runways open? New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports both had water flow onto the runways.
Next, is there public transit to get workers to the airport? If not, does the airline have enough staff staying at nearby hotels that can be bused in?
Finally, the airline has to check on all the other people needed to run an airport: the Transportation Security Administration, customs officials, caters, fuel trucks and even the people who push wheelchairs through the terminal.
"Before we can even move an airplane here, we need to make sure those resources are here," said Delta's Kuykendall. "There's a lot of moving pieces that people don't see. It's a dance to get it all to work."
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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