Hurricane Wilma Creating Major Problems for Airlines, Travelers

Along with causing billions of dollars in insured damage, swiping electricity from millions of Floridians and killing at least six people, Hurricane Wilma also created major problems for air travelers on both domestic and international routes.

Miami International Airport is the busiest U.S. hub for Latin American travel and the busiest state hub for foreign travel. Yet it was empty on Monday and will remain that way Tuesday, when county workers will begin what officials called an "enormous" task to resume normal operations.

At least 2,000 flights - affecting hundreds of thousands of fliers - have been canceled into and out of South Florida's three major airports because of Wilma, and normal service may not resume until the middle of the week.

"The bottom line is, it has basically disrupted or stopped the traffic flowing from Latin America into North America," said John Hotard, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, which has a major hub in Miami. "Miami is a major point, and this is a major disruption."

Miami Airport was running on emergency power Monday evening, with an eerie darkness and silence hovering over the massive, typically bustling area. Stranded passengers who couldn't find hotels were taken by bus to shelters around the county, and police cars blocked airport entrances.

American has at least 500 scheduled flights per day into and out of Miami, and travelers with tickets on flights into or out of South Florida are finding themselves with few options.

"We always tell people to check the Web site or their travel agency," Hotard said. "Most people know that when the hub is closed or the airport is closed, they're not flying tomorrow. When we can accommodate them, we try to, but most of our passengers are going to have to wait until we get going again."

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which was closed Monday and didn't immediately announce an exact time when it would fully reopen, Southwest Airlines Co. was hopeful it could resume some sort of schedule into and out of the facility Tuesday afternoon.

Southwest did not operate any flights into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Palm Beach International or Fort Myers airports on Monday. Officials in Palm Beach County said the airport in West Palm Beach was expecting to reopen Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"When we resume depends on the condition of those airports," Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said.

Southwest operations in Orlando and Tampa were largely unaffected.

King said Wilma's disruption in South Florida didn't create any major residual delays nationwide, because Southwest officials anticipated significant problems ahead of the storm.

"We did keep the impact to a minimum because our dispatch department knew this was coming and positioned the planes at other airports," King said. "We didn't leave planes at those airports to get stuck."

Virtually all carriers, including JetBlue Airways Corp. - which services Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach - were allowing passengers whose flights were canceled by Wilma to rebook their travel without change fees or fare differences.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said Wilma necessitated the closure of nine Florida airports; others included facilities in Boca Raton, Hollywood-North Perry, Key West, Kissimmee Gateway, Marathon, Fort Myers Page Field, Pompano Beach Airpark and Witham Field in Stuart.


Associated Press Writers Jeff Price, Lisa Orkin Emmanuel and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.

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