Friday, August 26, 2011

Travel Ahead: Is a Huge Mess Brewing?

As I said in an interview on Warren Olney's "To the Point" program on NPR this afternoon, the transportation story of the weekend can be summarized with a four-word headline, TRAVEL GRINDS TO HALT.

Usually, I'm extremely wary about hurricane hysteria, given past media and government wolf-crying (along with the cry that was so initially insufficient with the real catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005).

But unless officials in New York and New Jersey are grossly overreacting (could such a thing be even possible?), this storm is predicted to slam into the New York-New Jersey coast starting tomorrow -- and prolonged travel chaos could be one of the major effects.

New York mass transit, subways and buses and commuter trains, is shutting down tomorrow. New Jersey commuter trains also are stopping. Big chunks of the New Jersey coast, as well as some low-lying parts of New York City, are being evacuated.

So far, the airlines have been very, very slow in reacting to this. Usually, it doesn't take much potential weather disturbance to get the airlines running around and cancelling flights like their pants are on fire, but so far only JetBlue has announced significant preemptive flight cancellations starting tomorrow. Check out the airline Web sites, and what you get in terms of current information is, basically, "check back here frequently for updates ..."

Why the slow response? Well, the situation is coming into focus very rapidly, thanks to federal, state and local government officials who are looking hard at the potential for massive flooding, rather than just the potential for heavy winds. I think the airlines have simply been looking out a different window as this storm bears down on New York.

Also, I think some airline people are closing their eyes shut tight and praying for a near-miss on this one. (And in the unlikely event that their prayers are answered and this hurricane unexpectedly fizzles, there will be some serious hell to pay for the political officials who caused all this sturm und drang.)

By the way, this storm shows that a deep media black-hole exists in New Jersey, where the news media have never been particularly strong anyway. The rapacious Gannett empire, which never met a newspaper it didn't want to ruin, has gobbled up the newspapers in most of New Jersey outside of Newark -- and replaced individual newspaper news sites with combined happy-face supposedly hyper-local links, like this useless page that pops up when you try to visit any of the Gannett newspaper sites in New Jersey. I ask, who do they think they're
kidding with this ridiculous crap?

Anyway, if and when the flight cancellations do start piling up, as they will soon, they will sideline travel plans for a large number of people in New York, where almost 20 percent of all flights are handled, and throughout the rest of the country, as connections get scrambled and planes end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Worse, re-booking a flight after the storm passes will be a problem, assuming you want to re-book soon. We're headed into a peak travel period, the Labor Day weekend, and the air-travel system already is fully booked. Our air travel system now operates, even in normal times, without any slack built in.

Assuming the storm hits as expected, it's going to take us a while to sort this mess out.

An idea just occurred to me as a journalist. I could simply get on a plane today and fly to one of the East Coast airports, so I could be there for on-scene reporting when the misery begins, with thousands stranded.

I could, and there was a time when I would. But dang, it's hot and sunny here in Tuscon, and there's this horse that needs to get out and get some exercise.

Happy trails to you.


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