Blizzard tests New York, passengers’ patience

Hundreds of airline passengers were stranded for up to 10 hours on the tarmac at overworked Kennedy Airport. Ambulances struggled to get patients through unplowed streets.

NEW YORK — Hundreds of airline passengers were stranded for up to 10 hours on the tarmac at overworked Kennedy Airport. Ambulances struggled to get patients through unplowed streets. City buses sat abandoned in the snow.

The Christmas weekend blizzard proved to be the curse that keeps on giving Tuesday, as confusion and frustration snowballed in New York and the rest of the country.

Officials warned it could take until New Year’s to rebook all passengers and straighten out the transportation mess created by the storm, which shut down all three of New York’s major airports for 24 hours and caused a ripple effect across the U.S.

A high school band from Pennsylvania faced the prospect of marching in the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, California, with only half its musicians after the storm stranded the rest in Philadelphia. European tourists who planned to fly into New York found themselves in Chicago when their flights were diverted. Travellers as far away as San Francisco were marooned, even though they were headed nowhere near the Northeast.

New York’s airports struggled to get planes in and out. But some jetliners couldn’t even get to the gate.

At Kennedy, a British Airways plane from London carrying 300 passengers waited five hours for an open gate, and then two more hours for customs to open, said John Lampl, a spokesman.

A Cathay Pacific flight that had been diverted to Toronto spent 10 hours on the tarmac, and a second Cathay Pacific plane with 250 people sat on the runway for about eight hours Tuesday.

Passenger Abi Subramanian, a 38-year-old investment banker returning home to New York from a holiday trip in Vancouver, British Columbia, said supplies on the plane were running low and he was worried about his wife and two-month-old daughter.

“We’re going to be in trouble very shortly. There’s no food left for her,” he said by cellphone shortly before the family got off the plane.

Airlines were dispatching planes to the airport without lining up gate space first, causing backups on the ground, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the planes had taken off under the assumption that they would have somewhere to go upon landing.

In general, U.S. airlines operating domestic flights are not allowed to keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours.

But the rule does not apply to international flights or foreign airlines.

The chaos was also reflected in New York’s streets, where hundreds of abandoned city buses and dozens of ambulances still sat in the middle of snowdrifts from the storm, which clobbered the city with up to 60 centimetres of snow.

A video that instantly went viral on the Internet showed city crews accidentally smashing a parked car as they tried to free a construction vehicle.

Officials predicted streets would not be clear until Wednesday, a day later than they first promised.

“And even then I’m not so sure,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

In the Bronx, Yankee Stadium, usually dormant at this time of year, was full of about 400 workers shovelling snow to prepare for Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl college football game between Kansas State and Syracuse.

Brooklyn resident Annie O’Daly waited more than 30 hours for help after falling and breaking her ankle Sunday night at around 8 p.m., said Jim Leonhardt, her husband. An ambulance didn’t arrive until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Leonhardt had to help paramedics carry her out onto the unplowed street and over a snowbank.

Officials pleaded with private companies to help out, and the city converted various vehicles in its fleet into snowplows, including trucks typically used for cleaning graffiti.

“It’s a bad situation and we’re working together to correct it,” Bloomberg said.

Some 1,000 vehicles had been removed from three major New York City-area expressways alone, the mayor said. In New Jersey, police in helicopters counted at least 60 vehicles stranded along a highway at the shore. Motorists were taken in National Guard Humvees and other vehicles to shelters.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, a commuter train hit a tractor-trailer that got stuck at a railroad crossing. The driver had left the truck and no injuries were reported.

More than 5,000 flights had been cancelled since Sunday night at all three New York-area airports, about 1,000 of them on Tuesday alone.

Adriana Siqueira, 38, a housekeeper from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was told she and her 10-year-old daughter cannot get home from New York’s LaGuardia until New Year’s Day. They had already spent one night in the terminal and couldn’t afford a hotel.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Siqueira said. “I don’t feel good.”

The delays and cancellations were having a domino effect around the U.S.

Carol Gibson, a 39-year-old unemployed business analyst, was stranded in San Francisco overnight Monday when the JetBlue plane that was supposed to take her home to Austin, Texas, got stuck in New York. She booked a flight home on Southwest. She said she is out about $375 because of a hotel room in San Francisco, the costlier flight and food.

“I’m not employed right now, so it’s one of those double whammies,” she said. “It’s frustrating that I had to use some of my Christmas cash right away.”

The Downingtown High School band from suburban Philadelphia was trying to get to Southern California to perform in the Rose Parade. By Tuesday only 100 of the 300 musicians had made it, but Continental Airlines had found nearly enough seats for the rest, said band director Brent Lewis.

In Chicago, German traveller Michael Giesen his wife, Merja Nevalainen-Giesen, were among the mostly European stranded passengers who gathered in the lobby of the Hilton inside Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

At least eight international flights were diverted to O’Hare. The Giesens, of Dusseldorf, had left Germany on Monday afternoon with plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve on the Hudson River on a boat. Instead they were flying to Pittsburgh and then were supposed to get on a seven-hour bus ride to New York.

Nevalainen-Giesen, 66, vowed to never travel in winter again, but her husband was philosophical about the whole thing.

“It’s nature,” Michael Giesen said. “Perhaps it’s good to learn that nature can’t be run and we have to listen to nature.”

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