Hurricane Sandy: what to do if you're on one of the 9,000 canceled flights

More flight cancellations are expected as airlines scrap flights on Tuesday and maybe Wednesday. Hurricane Sandy has also brought some Amtrak service and public transit to a halt.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Travellers surround a flight monitor showing cancelled flights at LaGuardia airport in New York on Sunday.

Hurricane Sandy brought travel largely to a halt along America's East Coast Monday, grounding flights and affecting travelers across the country, as well as around the world.

As of 9 a.m., the website FlightAware tallied 8,962 flight cancellations as a result of the superstorm.

The shutdowns by airlines left venues like New York City's LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports as hubs of aviation inactivity, sidelined by Sandy's winds and rains.

The storm is affecting not just people hoping to leave the region, but those trying to get to cities spanning from Charlotte, N.C., to Bangor, Maine. Passengers booked on Alaska Airlines Flight 12 from Seattle to Boston were among the throngs across the United States whose travel was delayed.

In places as far away as Hong Kong, travelers booked hotels for extra nights because they can't head home.

The number of flight cancellations is expected to grow as airlines scrap more flights on Tuesday and perhaps Wednesday. That's because the storm appears poised to hover over the densely populated Northeast for some time.

American Airlines, for example, has already canceled Flight 344 from Chicago to LaGuardia for Tuesday night.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said its airports – including JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark – remain open, but noted there's not much reason to be there if you can avoid it.

"Air carriers have ceased operations until further notice, and we are encouraging travelers not to travel to the airports," the port authority said in a statement Monday.

Sandy's effect on travel goes beyond airlines. The storm prompted shutdowns of Amtrak rail service, as well as many bus and subway lines throughout the affected region, which is home to about one-fifth of the country's population. Public transportation came to a halt in New York City. The website of the Washington, D.C., Metro service showed a big red storm symbol with the announcement, "Metro announces full suspension of service for Monday." In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority operated for part of Monday before a 2 p.m. cease of operations.

Not every flight in the region was grounded. The FlightAware's early-morning summary held out the promise of "a few more" departures from some airports.

But with thousands of passengers needing to rebook, and in an era when airlines typically operate close to full capacity on their planes, the fallout from the storm could last well into next week, even as the storm is predicted to move off to the north.

Airlines are offering fee-free changes to itineraries, and refunds in some cases, says FlightAware, a provider of air-travel information. It notes that the best way to make flight changes is on airline websites, since "call centers are typically overwhelmed during major events."

Posting a Twitter update about your rebooking needs, with a mention of the airline you're using, sometimes prompts a quicker response from customer service than calling by phone. If you try it, just don't count on it as a guaranteed route forward.

An Associated Press news report says fliers should "keep in mind that airlines usually only waive this [itinerary-change] fee once." It adds, "Be certain you want to change your itinerary before you lock it in." Otherwise, it could cost as much as $150 to make a second change.

Travelers who cancel a booking may be offered a voucher for a future flight, but "can ask for cash instead," the AP report says.

Often airlines do not cover the cost of hotel stays for cases of weather-related delay. The United Airlines cancellation policy states that when delays are "not within United's control," the airline may offer food and beverages, or meal vouchers, and "we may be able to give you a distressed passenger rate voucher for a nearby hotel."

Although the storm is huge in size and is having major effects on air travel this week, forecasters aren't expecting it to do record amounts of wind and flood damage.

The risk-modeling firm EQECAT predicts the storm's economic damages will be similar to hurricane Irene in 2011 at $10 billion or hurricane Ike in 2008 at $20 billion. That's a far cry from hurricane Katrina in 2005, which did economic damage in the neighborhood of $100 billion.

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