Weekend travel will continue to be a mess after days of snow-related delays

By Susan Kinzie and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A09

Maureen Russo's phone rang with an offer, and a warning, from the airport shuttle: now or never.

The shuttle could take her to Dulles International Airport the night before her Wednesday flight to Bogota, Colombia, before the snow really started. Or else she could forget it.

Then the airline called: The flight was canceled. But if she could get to the airport, airline officials told her, they might be able to put her on another plane. After a frantic $100 cab ride from Dupont Circle, then a night at an airport hotel, the 26-year-old was waiting in a ticketing line Thursday. "It's been the worst travel experience in my life," she said.

It's been bad all week for people trying to get into, or out of, the region: canceled flights, long lines, icy streets, cars smothered in snow in airport parking lots. And travel this weekend will continue to be a mess.

A long holiday weekend, with Valentine's Day smack in the middle, means roads and airports will be jammed with people leaving for romantic getaways or just trying to get out of the snow for a few days.

And they will be traveling with all the people whose flights have been delayed this week, who have been eating stale airport bagels, staring drearily at monitors and barking airline confirmation codes into computer-assisted phone lines for days.

The snow has been "almost cataclysmic in terms of the impacts it's having on travel," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

It's the worst airport situation since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when flights nationwide were canceled for several days and Reagan National Airport was shut down for several weeks, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

Southwest had more weather-related flight cancellations since Feb. 5, said spokesman Paul Flaningan, than in any other week in the airline's 38-year-old history.

All three area airports reopened Thursday after this week's storm, resuming flights gradually throughout the day. At Dulles Airport, two of the four runways were operating by 6 a.m., said Courtney Mickalonis, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Reagan National Airport reopened later because there is less room in which to put the plowed snow, with 60 dump trucks hauling it away. Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport resumed flights at 7 a.m., according to spokeswoman Lynda Warehime.

Southwest, BWI's busiest airline, canceled most flights there earlier Thursday but began landing at the airport again about 5 p.m. and expected to resume its 160 daily flights from BWI on Friday.

That doesn't mean things are back to normal.

Because this weekend is heavily booked with holiday travelers, Stempler said, it could take passengers who need to rebook canceled flights five to six days to get a seat. He suggested checking flights into several airports close to the final destination and then renting a car.

"Just be patient and try to find as many alternatives as you can," Stempler said.

Passengers should also check with the airline before heading to the airport because it will probably take a day or two for flight schedules to return to normal, officials said.

Driving won't be simple, either.

Townsend advised traveling during daylight hours, before roads refreeze. "Pack your patience," he said.

Airport parking lots are probably going to take days to dig out.

Some travelers got back, after extended delays, only to find their cars buried in snow. At BWI, the airport's parking lot contractor was loaning out shovels.

But with hundreds of people beginning to return Thursday afternoon, "people might have to wait a while to get help," Warehime said.

She advised parking in the garage at BWI because many lots aren't fully cleared.

There are also private lots nearby with free shuttles to the airport.

Amtrak ran limited train service Thursday on its Northeast Corridor routes, said spokeswoman Karina Romero, because of diminished demand and concern about potential power outages. "We had very low ridership," she said. "A lot of people heeded the warnings and stayed home." In one case, three trains that could carry a total of about 750 people were combined into one, with just 70 or so passengers.

Terrible? Lousy? For all the people hitting redial and being kept on hold by the airlines, yes. For people sleeping on vents at Dulles hoping to fly standby, yes. For those wondering whether Metro will be working to get them to their early morning flights, yes.

But for a few -- such as Kathy Chamberlain, a retired federal worker from the District -- it has been the perfect storm.

She was supposed to fly home from Kauai, Hawaii, on Monday, and a series of delays and cancellations this week didn't faze her one bit. She has been monitoring her Hillcrest neighborhood e-mail list, with its complaints of roads unplowed for days, power outages, people trapped in their houses, and so on. "Not for a nanosecond have I wished to be back there," she said.

Her flight from Los Angeles to Dulles on Friday may be delayed. But she's not worried. She was deciding whether to go snorkeling, ride her bike around the island or just hang out with friends at the beach before heading to the airport.

"I have some tough, tough choices to make," she said.

Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson, Kafia A. Hosh and Anna Uhls contributed to this report.

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