Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
October 28. 2012 - Updated at 3:07 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012
The tally of preemptive flight cancellations related to Hurricane Sandy is now inching closer to 5,000, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The newspaper writes that carriers have "canceled 1,030 domestic and international services on Sunday and a further 3,680 due to depart Monday, with east coast airports expected to decide later Sunday whether or not to close."
The source of the Journal's cancellation figures were not immediately clear. But the figure comes on the heels of a 9:45 a.m. ET report from FlightAware that said 3,200 flights had been canceled and with the flight-tracking service adding that it expected that number "to rise considerably throughout the day."
Already the nation's two biggest airlines announced that they would suspend flight operations at many of their East Coast airports, including several of their busiest hubs.
United, the nation's biggest carrier, says it will halt all flights at several airports -- including at its Newark and Washington Dulles hubs -- beginning late tonight and extending at least through mid-day Tuesday.
"Based on the forecast, today (Sunday) we will likely suspend operations scheduled for tonight and tomorrow at several airports in the region," United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson tells Today in the Sky. "Conditions are likely to keep us from operating with an acceptable margin of safety."
"Some of the cancellations begin this evening -- as opposed to tomorrow -- because we want to ensure we get airplanes out of the path of the storm to minimize disruption for customers outside the region," Rahsaan adds. "We don't want to inconvenience customers flying from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, because their airplane is stuck on the East Coast."
Delta, the USA's No. 2 carrier, announced similar plans, saying via Twitter that it would cancel all of its Monday flight at Philadelphia and the three New York City-area airports. That includes two of Delta's hubs -- both its domestic hub at New York LaGuardia and its international hub at New York JFK.
American, the third-biggest U.S. airline, also had canceled more than 1,000 flights that had been scheduled to operate during the next three days.
"American Airlines and (regional affiliate) American Eagle canceled 140 flights today (Oct. 28), and pre-canceled an additional 1,431 flights for Oct. 29 through Oct. 31 due to Hurricane Sandy," AA spokesman Kent Powell tells USA TODAY's Charisse Jones. "The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy may force some additional delays and cancellations of scheduled flights to the region."
Like Delta, American operates a hub at New York JFK and it's likely that lion's share of its East Coast cancellations are tired to New York.
The wave cancellations announced today come even though Sandy is not expected to make landfall until sometime tomorrow (Oct. 29). But Sandy's effects are forecast to be wide-reaching, with tropical storm-forced winds expected to extend from New England to Virginia by Monday evening. That's all but certain to create havoc at major airports that struggle with delays even in relatively mild weather events.
Earlier this morning, FlightAware reported that 707 U.S. flights have been canceled already today (Oct. 28), with the highest number coming at Newark Liberty airport - a major hub for United.
Monday's flight schedule has taken a bigger hit, with the tally of preemptive cancellations at 2,499 as of early Sunday morning, according to FlightAware.
"Most affected is Newark (EWR), with 774 cancellations, second is Dulles with 428 cancellations, third is Philadelphia with 355 cancellations," FlightAware says in a statement.
The flight-tracking agency warned of widespread flight disruptions and said the number of preemptive cancellations could "rise considerably throughout the day."
"Although most air traffic control towers will close when the wind reaches 60-70 knots, the big factor that will result in early flight disruptions is mass transit shutdowns and the availability of airline and airport staff due to their need to prepare for the storm," FlightAware CEO Daniel Baker says in a statement, noting that New York's mass transit agency plans to halt train service around 7 p.m. this evening.
United Airlines became the first carrier to publicly announce it would begin paring flights ahead of Sandy.
United announced this morning (Oct. 28) it already has started canceling "selected flights to and from mid-Atlantic and northeast airports beginning Sunday evening."
Starting on Monday, United says it will "limit or suspend service" to nearly 30 airports in the region, including at two of its busiest hubs: Newark Liberty and Washington Dulles. United adds that it "expects to resume service on Tuesday with selected cancellations, weather permitting."
FlightAware says its flight data shows that United plans to halt its flight operations between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m . ET tonight at Washington Dulles, Philadelphia and the three New York City-area airports (Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and JFK).
FlightAware says it appears United's flights will remain suspended at those airports at least through Tuesday afternoon.
FlightAware CEO Baker predicts other airlines will follow a similar course.
"US Airways will announce their cancellation schedule at noon today although their regional carrier, Air Wisconsin, has already cancelled flights on Monday at PHL (Philadelphia) and (Washington National) DCA.," Baker says in FligthtAware's statement. "JetBlue is also deciding later pending determination of staffing availability."
Last year, more than 14,000 flights were canceled over a four-day period last year when Hurricane Irene and its remnants tracked over the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
Sandy is expected to make landfall sometime Monday, but the storm's is currently forecast to bring hurricane or tropical storm conditions to a large swatch of the region for up to 72 hours, according to forecasts.
Besides the airlines, Amtrak has already canceled about a half-dozen train runs on Sunday and Monday. The rail carrier warned more were possible as Sandy nears.
Back to skies, every big U.S. airline -- including American, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit, United and US Airways -- has issued flexible travel policies that allow fee-free changes for many passengers ticketed to fly to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic during the next few days.
Many customers appear to be taking the airlines up on their offers, though that's prompted a number of complaints via Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels about long hold times on airline reservations lines.
At United, spokesman Rahsaan Johnson tells Today in the Sky that "call volumes are up, which leads to longer wait times, but we've got employees deployed in all our call centers and our at-home agents working."
He suggests customers should first try changing their tickets online.
"Those travelers whose flights are cancelled and who no longer need to travel can delay calling us and apply for a refund after the storm has passed," Johnson adds to Today in the Sky. "That can help to reduce overall volume and wait times for customers who do need to rebook."
Nearly every major U.S. airline has at least one hub or "focus city" among the airports expect to see extreme conditions from Sandy. Several airlines have two, such as United (Newark and Washington Dulles), US Airways (Philadelphia and Washington National) and JetBlue (New York JFK and Boston).
Even a moderate disruption of those airports could affect thousands of flights and tens of thousands of passengers. An outright suspension of flights at a combination of those airports would wreak havoc that could spread throughout the U.S. aviation grid and create a backlog of stranded fliers that takes days to clear.
Even parts of the nation outside Sandy's reach are likely to see flight delays. A flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, for example, could become delayed or canceled if the flight or crew scheduled to fly it gets marooned because of disruptions in the East resulting from Sandy.