Fourth US Northeast storm in March snarls air traffic with thousands of flights cancelled


NEW YORK (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - Airlines cancelled thousands of flights in the US Northeast on Wednesday (March 22) as a swirl of strong winds, snow, sleet and ice from the fourth major storm this month crippled the region.

The cold blast closed schools and triggered emergency declarations in New York City and New Jersey.

Airlines scrapped more than 4,400 flights within, to or from the United States, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, and more than 3,000 other US flights were delayed as the latest "nor'easter" dumped snow and ice on New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

The cancellations piled on to thousands more cancelled flights due to an unrelenting series of late-winter storms.

In addition to creating headaches for passengers, these storms can rack up millions of dollars in costs for airlines, as carriers reallocate aircraft and crew, and swallow the cost of passengers who don't re-book travel.

"This has been a much harsher late winter than we've seen for quite some time. It does have an impact on carriers' bottom lines," CFRA Research analyst Jim Corridore said.

While the full financial impact of the storms was not yet known, Corridore said accurate weather forecasts helped carriers quickly move planes and crew as well as plan for resuming normal operations.

"There is a small silver lining in that it does help load factors and yields," he said, noting that passengers from cancelled flights often help fill later flights that would have otherwise sat empty.

U.S. carriers are offering change-fee waivers from flights in the affected regions, including from New York's three major airports, Philadelphia International and Boston Logan International.

LaGuardia Airport in New York City said on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon that airlines had cancelled all remaining flights at the facility for the rest of the day.

The nor'easter was on track to dump 30 to 46 cm of snow on areas from Philadelphia to New York City on Wednesday, said Weather Prediction Center meteorologist Dan Petersen.



The storm also lashed points along the East Coast with winds exceeding 80km per hour, according to the Weather Prediction Center.


The wintry blast on the second day of spring was dubbed "four'easter" by some media outlets because it struck after three previous storms this month. Those nor'easters left nine dead and more than 2 million homes and businesses without power.


New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo declared local emergencies for New York City, where several inches of snow had fallen by Wednesday afternoon, and some other parts of the state.

"The roads are very icy and the roads are dangerous and there is no reason to be on the roads unless it's an emergency," Cuomo told a news conference. "The storm will get worse before it gets better." The snowfall in the Northeast is not expected to wane until Thursday, Weather Prediction Center meteorologist Frank Pereira said in a phone interview.

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy on Tuesday declared a state of emergency, as crews cleared roadways. Transit bus service was ordered suspended statewide starting Wednesday afternoon.

Throughout the East Coast, many other buses and trains, including some Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail routes, that millions of people rely on to commute to and from work and school also cancelled service on Wednesday.

With many commuters staying home, New York City's normally bustling Times Square was sedate.

"We're not going to let the snow get in the way of our snow day," said Cheryl Mandelbaum, 30, an elementary school teacher who was taking pictures with a friend, another teacher who had the day off because the city had cancelled school.

Heavy snow in Washington and its suburbs forced the closure of federal government offices, according to the US Office of Personnel Management.

Washington schools were also closed, and children in Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey and Pittsburgh also enjoyed a snow day. In Boston, students were told to trudge to school.

The storm dumped about a 30cm of snow on parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to the National Weather Service, while further inland snow also blanketed parts of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

The storm is an odd occurrence in March - regionwide storms of this size typically develop only about once a year, said the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini.

But every few years, storms do tend to come in bunches, Uccellini said. "The episodic nature of these storms is not weird," he said. "It's actually a characteristic of these storms."

The culprit, he explained, is something called the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is related to airflow over this part of the planet. When the NAO is positive - as it was from December to February - the air moves fast and storms do not have time to build up a lot of power. But in March, the NAO went negative. That means the flow gets blocked.

"You get a trough that sits off northeast Canada, or between Canada and Greenland, and it tends to lock in cold air in the northeastern US," Uccellini said. And because the air over the North Atlantic, to the south and east of the Northeast, stays warm and moist, Uccellini said, that contrast between cold air over land and warm air over sea "can be conducive to rapid cyclogenesis", meaning it makes big snowstorms.

While this was expected to be the last big snowfall of the season, it could still become the biggest spring snowstorm in New York City history, breaking the record of 25cm set on April 3, 1915.