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Travel in and out of East Coast at a standstill

Centerpiece graphic looks at the current status of Hurricane Sandy, potentially the most damaging storm in U.S. history; includes maps showing storm track, power outages, rainfall totals, storm surge flooding potential and information about closings and emergencies throughout the region.

By Jennifer Waters, MarketWatch –

CHICAGO — Travel in and out of much of the East Coast has been mostly halted as Hurricane Sandy pounds its way up the densely populated coast.

“This is going to be a big storm,” President Barak Obama said at a news conference Monday. “It’s going to be a difficult storm.”

Some 9,000 flights have been canceled through Tuesday with more expected as nearly every major airport from Washington to Boston is at or near full shutdown, according to FlightAware.com, a real-time airline cancelation site.

In the New York area, for example, John F. Kennedy International in New York, Newark (N.J.) Liberty International, Stewart International and LaGuardia were technically open, but flights were halted until further notice.

“This will affect other parts of the country because the planes are not where they’re supposed to be,” said George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, a travel site.

Amtrak has suspended all East Coast travel, an area in which typically more than 300 trains run each day.

Even if planes were flying, you wouldn’t be able to get to them. In New York and Boston, for instance, buses, subways and commuter rail service were not operating. Most major cities and states have declared states of emergency as Hurricane Sandy whips up tropical storm-force winds that are estimated to exceed 90 mph and could produce water surges that top 12 feet.

“Transportation is going to be tied up for a long time,” Obama said. “There will be a lot of backlogs and even after the storm has cleared, it’s going to take a lot of time for airlines, subways to get back on schedule.”

That’s because of the unprecedented flooding and significant power outages that forecasters reckon will follow in the hurricane’s path late Monday.

Airlines were quick to cancel flights before Sandy’s anticipated landfall, beginning as early as Saturday in some cases and Sunday and Monday in many others. Most had not published Tuesday cancelations by Monday afternoon.

“We wanted to ensure we get airplanes out of the path of the storm to minimize disruption for customers outside the region,” said United spokesman Charles Hobart. “We don’t want to inconvenience customers flying from, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, because their airplane is stuck on the East Coast.

“We also do this as a matter of convenience for our customers, as many would rather know their flight was canceled in advance and then be able to reschedule in the comfort of their homes, rather than at the airport,” he said.

By flight-cancelations history, this wind storm still falls far from the 17,000 flights that were blocked because of the spewed ash from a volcano in Iceland in 2010. When Hurricane Irene threatened the East Coast last year, 13,416 flights in a three-day period were canceled.

It’s unclear how long planes will be grounded but most carriers expect to be back to some sense of “normal” by Wednesday.

“This could change depending upon the severity of the storm in these individual stations,” said Kent Powell, a spokesman for American Airlines. “We just don’t know yet.”

American and its competitors have waived change fees that are as high as $150 per ticket and urged travelers to reschedule or cancel plans as the menacing storm sweeps toward a predicted Monday night landfall. Some, like American, are beginning to extend the original travel-by dates.

Many carriers have added staff to handle the rush of rebookings this week, but expect headaches and long wait times on the phone nonetheless. Hobica said he was on hold for two hours trying to change a United Airlines flight before he gave up. He finally left a message at a call-back center and the airline’s representatives responded within 35 minutes and booked him on another flight. That was canceled 10 minutes later.

Airlines normally will offer full refunds for canceled flights, but that might not be the case when frequent-flyer miles are used. Look for alerts and how to rebook flights through their Twitter accounts and on their Facebook pages. Passengers can also sign up for a real-time, travel-alert text message to their phones.

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