East Coast begins cleanup after winter storm

Latest storm causes major traffic pileup in Pennsylvania and results in thousands of flight cancellations

Drivers are stranded after a huge pileup on Friday in Bensalem, Pa.
AP Photo/Bucks County Courier Times, Bill Fraser

The East Coast dug out on Friday from the final wallop of a deadly four-day storm that left at least 20 dead and dumped more than two feet of snow in some places, causing chaos from the South up to New England. Yet another round of snow was forecast for parts of the region Saturday.

Many airports, roads and businesses reopened amid forecasts for a sunny Friday.

But on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Friday morning, slick roads were the apparent cause of a huge chain-reaction of accidents. The roadway was littered with twisted metal from up to 50 vehicles in multiple accidents that injured at least 30 people. The road had to be closed during the morning commute, causing a 7-mile backup, said Renee Vid Colborn, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

None of the injuries was life-threatening, she said of the two massive crashes involving up to 25 vehicles each.

Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone said the miles-long traffic jam was cleared, and all but a few disabled cars and trucks have been towed.

And though many people went back to work and school Friday, heavy snow in and around New York City, Boston and Philadelphia caused some schools to be closed for a second unplanned day.

"You can fly in the air!" squealed kindergartner Jack Mension, 6, while sledding in Philadelphia's Clark Park on his second canceled school day due to weather.

Some parents were not as thrilled as they scrambled to find child care and school administrators were looking at how best to make up lost classroom time by extending school into the summer.

Flight canceled: The new norm

The storm also brought with it thousands of flight cancellations across the country; by Friday morning, the number was down to about 1,200, according to the website FlightAware. But on Thursday, more than 70 percent of flights were canceled in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Charlotte, N.C.

The relentless snow and ice storms this winter have led to the highest number of flight cancellations in more than 25 years, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

U.S. airlines have canceled more than 75,000 domestic flights since Dec. 1, including roughly 14,000 this week. It's the highest total number and highest percent of cancellations since at least the winter of 1987–88, when the Department of Transportation first started gathering data.

"This year is off to a brutal start for airlines and travelers," said FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker. "Not only is each storm causing tens of thousands of cancellations, but there's been a lot of them."

Mother Nature isn't entirely to blame. A mix of cost-cutting measures and new government regulations has made airlines more likely to cancel flights and leave fliers scrambling to get to their destination.

Airlines have been cutting unprofitable flights and packing more passengers into planes. That's been great for their bottom line but has created a nightmare for passengers whose flights are canceled due to a storm. Other planes are too full to easily accommodate the stranded travelers. Many customers must wait days to secure a seat on another flight.

Carol Cummings, 23, was trying to fly Thursday on United Airlines from the Washington, D.C., area to Los Angeles to visit a high school friend for the long Presidents Day weekend. The flight was canceled and Cummings was automatically rebooked for a flight on Monday — the day she was supposed to return home. After 150 minutes on hold, United offered to move the trip to another weekend — for an extra $150 — or to refund her ticket.

"I am annoyed and surprised at the lack of customer concern I experienced," she said. Cummings is waiting for her refund.

Airlines are quicker to cancel flights these days, sometimes a day in advance of a storm. The shift in strategy came in response to new government regulations, improvements to overall operations and because canceling quickly reduces expenses.

In May 2010, a new DOT rule took effect prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for three hours or more. So airlines now choose to cancel blocks of flights to avoid potential fines of up to $27,500 per passenger or $4.1 million for a typical plane holding 150 fliers.

Additionally, the government implemented a new rule at the start of January, increasing the amount of rest pilots need. That's made it harder to operate an irregular schedule, such as those seen after a storm. In order to have enough well-rested pilots, airlines cancel more flights.

Not all of the cancellations are tied to regulations. Airlines have learned in recent years that while a large number of early cancellations might cause short-term pain, it helps them better reset after the weather clears.

Keeping planes at airports outside of the storm's path can protect equipment and thereby get flight schedules back to normal quickly after a storm passes. It also allows airlines to let gate agents, baggage handlers and flight crews stay home, too — keeping them fresh once they're needed again.

There are also financial considerations. A plane circling above an airport hoping to land, or even one waiting on a taxiway, burns a lot of fuel. 

Wire services

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