Fed up with waiting, air travelers rush rental car counters

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As hundreds of thousands of fliers still stranded by Superstorm Sandy struggle to get home or resume their disrupted itineraries, many are getting frustrated with air travel and turning to four-wheel transportation options.

Car rental companies are reporting unusual activity in the wake of the storm, with travelers desperate to get moving.

“It’s people saying, ‘I’m stuck, I’ve got to get out of here’,” said Richard Broome, a spokesman for Hertz.

The company estimates it will have rented 10,000 cars one-way from the storm-affected area, compared to a few hundred — at most — reservations of this type at this time of the year, Broome said. It means lots of people are picking up a car at one location and dropping it off at another far away, a shift from the typical car rental.

“For this kind of activity, you only see it during truly catastrophic events. Major natural disasters and, for example, 9/11,” Broome said.

Hertz has a very large number of reservations in New York, but it doesn’t physically have enough cars in the city to handle them, he added. The company is moving the cars in as quickly as it can. Orbitz is reporting a 14 percent spike in car rental rates in the Big Apple compared to last week, an indication of increased demand.

For travelers who either couldn’t get a rental car or who are waiting for a flight, there was some good news on Wednesday: JFK and Newark airports provided limited air service. Travelers should check with their airlines before heading to the airport and should take precautionary measures as terminals may have limited food and concessions.

LaGuardia remained closed Wednesday and was described by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as having suffered “extensive damage.” It will open on Thursday and offer limited service, according to an e-mail alert from the airport.

Video: Stranded travelers ‘not going to get next flight’

Robert Reid is among the many stranded travelers waiting to return home after the storm. On Wednesday, he was in Bogota, Colombia, preparing to fly back to JFK International after Sandy unexpectedly extended his trip to Ecuador by several days. His original flight would have put him in New York on Monday just as the hurricane was arriving, so he was relieved when it was canceled. Reid used the delay to relax in Quito.

“These are crazy times,” said Reid, who is the U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet. “(But) I can’t complain. I was lucky. I’d rather spend a few bonus days in the Andes with hot chocolate cafes than be stuck back in New York.”

Carriers have canceled more than 19,500 flights since Sunday, according to FlightAware.com. Almost 3,000 flights were scrubbed today, with LaGuardia accounting for most of them.

Flooded subway tunnels and train tracks in New York are having an impact on carriers who may have planes ready to go but whose pilots, flight attendants, gate agents and other employees are having a hard time getting to the airport.

Limited subway service will be restored to 14 of 23 lines on Thursday, Gov. Cuomo announced.

Video: Aerials: LaGuardia tarmac flooded by Sandy

For airlines, it will probably take at least until this weekend for the domestic backlog to sort out, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. It could take a bit longer for people stranded in Asia and Europe who are trying to come back to the U.S., depending on the number of flights and seats available.

“But we will see many people deciding not to begin outward journeys or postponing non-essential outbound trips until after the mess clears up, so that will help,” Hobica said.

The big job now for airlines is to assess the damage and regroup:

  • Delta resumed about 50 percent of its schedule at JFK on Wednesday. It expects to resume operations at LaGuardia on Thursday.;
  • United resumed inbound flights to JFK and Newark on Wednesday afternoon;
  • American Airlines plans to operate limited flights into JFK on Wednesday evening and will resume flying out of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark on Thursday morning;
  • JetBlue saw its first arrival at JFK International on Wednesday morning and is looking at a phased return to service. There still will be no JetBlue departures from JFK until Thursday when the airline plans on operating at about 50 percent of its schedule. The airline plans to resume flights at Newark on Thursday.

Airlines will use bigger planes and add more flights to speed things up if they can, said Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Concierge air travel assistance service.

“It could have been a lot worse, but this is a lower demand travel time so there is more slack in the system to recover than you’d find around the holidays,” he said.

Click here for full coverage of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath.

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