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Travelers stuck as 77 Tampa International Airport flights get canceled

In the hallway just off the main terminal there was not the usual passenger traffic at Tampa International Airport, where the mid-Atlantic storms forced the cancellation of 77 flights.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

In the hallway just off the main terminal there was not the usual passenger traffic at Tampa International Airport, where the mid-Atlantic storms forced the cancellation of 77 flights.

TAMPA — Travelers, hope you like Florida.

Locked out by blankets of snow and ice in the mid-Atlantic region, thousands of Tampa Bay area visitors were stranded Wednesday as they waited for a way home. Flying to, from or through places such as Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia was out of the question.

They also couldn't leave by train. Or bus. Or car.

"If they rent a car, they're just going to eventually run into the bad weather," said Jim Sweat, AAA South's managing director for travel agency services. "Unfortunately, it just looks like everybody is stuck."

That includes travelers in other parts of the country who want to get back to Florida. A group of 12 students and a couple of teachers from Seminole High School have been stuck in Washington, D.C., since Feb. 3.

When planes do start flying again, it could take days to get everyone where they need to be.

More flights at Tampa International Airport were canceled Wednesday than any time in recent memory, an airport spokeswoman said. Out of about 400 flights, 77 were halted by 7 a.m. That included 36 arrivals and 41 departures.

"Even during hurricanes, it doesn't seem we have that many," said TIA spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan. "When you see almost 100 flights canceled … that's a big impact."

Because the storms and cancellations have been so widely publicized, the airport was somewhat of a ghost town Wednesday morning. Most people stayed away until they heard from airline representatives.

From Saturday through Tuesday, a total of 95 flights were canceled, with 10 to 35 flights halted per day. Some of this morning's flights, however, were already canceled by about noon Wednesday, Geoghagan said.

Representatives from most airlines said Tuesday that they wouldn't be adding any extra flights — just placing stranded passengers in empty seats on existing ones.

"The flights will be full, but we can handle it," said Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Ashley Rogers. "Let's just hope another blizzard doesn't come through."

Many travelers were considering trains. Not so fast, said Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero.

With the exception of two lines, every train route south of Washington has been canceled since Saturday, Romero said. The problem isn't so much the heavy snowfall, she said, but that the train switches have frozen stuck.

As for renting a car, "I wouldn't recommend that," Romero said.

National Weather Service forecaster John McMichael said the storm should make its way out of the country by late this afternoon, but "it's going to take its time."

The Seminole High group was in the nation's capital for the National Association of Student Councils leadership conference. Because of the storms, their conference was canceled, and all their flights since Sunday have been canceled, too. Now, the group hopes to make it back to Tampa on Friday.

"We are desperately, desperately hoping," said math teacher Beth Wonsick, the student council adviser.

Because the city has been shut down, the students haven't been able to go out much. They're on a first-name basis with the staff at their Arlington hotel and have had to entertain themselves with cell phones and laptops.

Beyond boredom, Wonsick said, there's been another negative consequence of being stranded. The trip, which was supposed to cost about $3,000, will probably end up in excess of $10,000, she said.

She said everyone, even the kids who were excited about seeing snow, is ready to come home.

"Friday hopefully we're out of here. If we're not, that would be terrible," said Danielle Keane, 18, student council president, whose father David Keane works for the St. Petersburg Times. "The snow was great at first, but we're pretty much over it."

As for Peter van Aartrijk, the stranded business passenger profiled in the Times on Wednesday, he's hoping today will be the end of his Tampa stay.

Aartrijk, bound for northern Virginia, has been booked on five cancelled flights since Sunday. If his next flight today doesn't go out, he said he may just pack up and brave the roads, despite the warnings.

He figured it would only take 15 hours.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Travelers stuck as 77 Tampa International Airport flights get canceled 02/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 7:16am]
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