Arctic freeze disrupts North American air travel

Reuters

By Karen Jacobs

(Reuters) - Glacial temperatures gripping large parts of the United States and Canada disrupted thousands of flights on Tuesday, creating more challenges for airlines seeking to recover from recent snow and ice storms.

JetBlue Airways resumed departures from New York and Boston airports after shutting down flights in those cities on Monday evening to protect crews and aircraft as it sought to recover from recent snow and low temperatures.

A frigid blast of arctic air that broke decades-old records in the middle United States moved eastward on Tuesday. The cold weather froze fueling equipment for planes, forcing airlines to cancel flights.

Delta Air Lines said ice and snow at its Detroit hub that disabled fuel gear led it to suspend regional flights there on Tuesday. Air Canada said flights to, from or connecting through 15 airports in Canada and the U.S. Northeast could be delayed or canceled into Thursday.

Overall, more than 2,900 flights had been canceled on Tuesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware.com. That compared with nearly 4,600 cancellations on Monday.

Among major carriers, Southwest had canceled 309 flights on Tuesday and JetBlue had 216 cancellations, according to FlightAware.com. United Continental had 117 halted flights, and American Airlines and its American Eagle unit had 500 cancellations combined.

Airports taking the hardest hit were Chicago O'Hare, where 383 flights, or about 31 percent, of flights were canceled; and Toronto Pearson, where 119 flights, or 19 percent of its total, were halted.

At Chicago O'Hare, American put its fueling pumper and tanker trucks in a hangar to keep them from freezing, spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said. Fueling was "slow but consistent," Fagan said in an email.

United was operating a reduced schedule at O'Hare because of continued effects of cold weather, spokeswoman Mary Clark noted.

Toronto's Pearson International Airport said the gusty winds and extreme cold weather, which Environment Canada said was minus 37 degrees Celsius (minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit) with wind chill, was causing equipment to freeze and posing a safety concern for workers.

JETBLUE TO FEEL MORE FINANCIAL IMPACT

Winter storms are a major issue for airlines in the first quarter. Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst with Raymond James, said it was too early to assess the specific financial impact from the latest storms and cancellations. She added that JetBlue's results would likely be more affected than those of carriers that have more geographically diversified networks.

JetBlue has most of its operations in the U.S. Northeast, and its network was also hurt by weekend runway shutdowns at JFK airport, where it has a major base, she said.

"Outside of JetBlue, I don't think the impacts (for other airlines) on an earnings basis will be that meaningful," Syth said.

Dan Baker, chief executive at FlightAware, said the current spate of cancellations tied to winter weather was not the worst airlines have seen compared with other storms in recent years.

"We're seeing only about 3,000 flights canceled a day; we've certainly seen 5,000 and above that (with other storms)," Baker said. "The reason this (current situation) is really impactful is it's tied with extreme temperatures that are so unusual."

New U.S. government rules requiring more rest for pilots took effect this month and were a "complicating factor" in recent flight cancellations, JetBlue told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration rules, which stem from a 2009 crash near Buffalo, New York, call for pilots to have 10 hours off the job before flying, compared with eight previously. The rules took effect on Saturday.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, with additional reporting by Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)

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