Tuesday, October 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wilma still causing airport woes in Florida, elsewhere

The Associated Press

MIAMI — South Florida airports said it would be Wednesday at the earliest before they fully recover from Hurricane Wilma, which forced thousands of flights to be canceled and cost the airline industry millions of dollars per day in revenue.

By Tuesday evening only one plane — a TAM Brazilian Airlines flight from Sao Paulo — had landed at Miami International Airport. The airport will have limited commercial and cargo service Wednesday as repairs are made to damaged roofs, fences and loading bridges, a spokeswoman said.

Airports in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale remained closed to commercial traffic Tuesday because of hurricane-related damage and power outages. Amtrak said there would be no rail service south of Orlando before Wednesday and in Mexico tens of thousands of tourists battled for limited airline and bus seats out of the country's hurricane-battered Caribbean resorts.

The airline disruptions in Florida caused a minor ripple effect of flight delays and cancellations in other parts of the country, but industry officials said the impact was limited because carriers had several days to prepare before Wilma made landfall.

John Heimlich, an economist for the Air Transport Association, said Wilma's impact on the airline industry's bottom line would not be severe. "Still, with fuel prices so high, the last thing you want is an interruption in your revenue stream," he said.

The nation's largest airline, American Airlines, planned no flights until 5 a.m. Wednesday at Miami International Airport, where it operates a busy hub for domestic and international traffic. American, a unit of AMR Corp., typically flies 500 flights a day into and out of Miami, but the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier said operations there would run at 50 percent until aircraft and crews flown out before the hurricane arrived are back in place.

"Technically, we have flights scheduled for tomorrow, but we're monitoring the situation to see if we're really going to be able to operate them," said Dave Messing, a spokesman for Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc., which serves Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. "We're hopeful, but unsure."

Meantime, Wilma's remnants and other bad weather caused travel disruptions in the Northeast. Dozens of flights were canceled at Boston's Logan Airport and airports in the New York City area reported flight delays of as much as 3 1/2 hours.

"There is less traffic going to Miami and some of the Florida airports, but the weather system that's operating along the whole East Coast is probably having a bigger impact on travel," Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

In Miami, many airport employees were drinking coffee or reading magazines on Tuesday afternoon. On departure and arrival monitors, the word "canceled" filled every screen. Yet the airport, which had power, was one of the few places in Miami where restaurants and shops were open.

Gary and Heidi Coombe and their two children, ages 13 and 11, came to the airport Tuesday to try to schedule a flight, but more importantly, get cash from an ATM.

The family, from Geneva, Switzerland, was supposed to fly home Monday, but instead spent the hurricane at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale. They don't expect to be able to leave Miami until Thursday at the earliest and were frustrated with having to make arrangements by phone.

Heidi Coombe said this would turn out to be a very expensive vacation, but then was quick to note it didn't even feel like a holiday because nothing was open.

"It's not a vacation anymore, it's a frustration," Gary Coombe said.

South Florida's other major airports — Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach — remained closed to commercial air traffic Tuesday afternoon as both waited for electricity to be restored.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said 10 percent of its flights were affected by Wilma.

Wilma caused billions of dollars in insured damage, cut the electricity of millions of Floridians and killed at least five people when it ripped through the state Monday.

The hurricane also wreaked havoc at some Florida municipal and commercial airports and made others inaccessible by downing trees on access roads. Boca Raton lost most of its hangars, and Hollywood-North Perry sustained extensive damage to its tower and roof.

Tourists in Mexico were still struggling late Tuesday to get out of that country due to Wilma-related disruptions.

Continental Airlines and Denver-based Frontier Airlines Inc. dispatched planes to Merida, about 170 miles west of Cancun, because the Cancun airport still had no electricity or flight control.

Associated Press Writer Leslie Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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