Frustrated travelers frozen out of business deals

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Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:21 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

Like millions of travelers this winter, Billy Bauer has felt the full effects of the nation’s cold weather.

Bauer, the marketing director for the leather-goods company Royce Leather in Secaucus, N.J., had a critical sales meeting jeopardized when snow stranded him in Montreal in December.

With no flights available, or even a seat on a bus or train to be had, Bauer rented a car and drove 10 hours through a snowstorm. “I didn’t get back until mid- to late afternoon,” he said. “I threw on a suit and met up with him and tried to at least smooth him over.”

Whatever chance he had at landing the business vanished.

“Ultimately, you’re either there or you’re not,” he said. “In the moment, it’s extremely frustrating.”

For any traveler like Bauer who has absolutely had to get somewhere this winter, the frigid weather has been taking a mounting toll. And more snow and ice was expected this week in the South and Northeast.

Last month, nearly 40,000 flights were canceled in the United States, about four times the previous two January totals, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking company. January’s number is almost double the next highest monthly total since the website adopted its current methods in January 2012.

Republic Airways, a regional carrier, reported last week that it completed only 85 percent of its scheduled flights in January, compared with 96 percent a year earlier. And other regional carriers, which together with Republic make up nearly half the nation’s flights, most likely have had similar numbers, said Robert W. Mann, an industry consultant.

“I think we’ve seen in the month of January alone a series of storms that have literally impacted every one of the major hub cities,” Mann said. “When you shut these airports down, you literally stop commerce.”

He said the last time he remembered a winter this bad for travelers was in the mid-1990s. “I think we’re probably looking at that 20-year sort of winter,” he said.

But 20 years ago, there was more give in the system, with planes flying at lower capacity and a hub-and-spoke system that was not as finely tuned.

“It shows how fragile the domestic system is,” Mann said.

Mark Duell, vice president for operations at FlightAware, said that maintenance schedules and crew hours added to the challenges of having planes grounded in one location when they need to be somewhere else.

“Part of it is the airlines are pretty thin on spares,” he said. “There’s not a lot of excess capacity.”

With flights grounded across the country and treacherous driving conditions, a storm in Dallas can mean being stranded for two days in Nashville, ice in Atlanta can disrupt a Boston-to-Chicago trip and snow in Washington can turn a cross-country flight into a 19-hour ordeal.

A regional snowstorm can have nationwide implications, even in Las Vegas.

“We had people contacting us left and right saying they couldn’t make it,” Joanna Kinsman, public relations director for the New Media Expo, an event that took place in Las Vegas in early January, when sharply colder weather gripped much of the country.

The event hosted about 2,300 attendees — nearly 20 percent less than anticipated, and lost about a dozen speakers.

Weather half a continent away can certainly have an effect, as Harry Balzer, a market research analyst in Chicago, found out two weeks ago when his flight out of Boston was canceled because of severe weather in Atlanta.

“There was no weather between Chicago and Boston,” he said. “That’s the most frustrating thing.”

For new business relationships, this winter’s weather can mean having to go the extra mile.

Ellen Saberg, national sales manager for Autrey Furniture Manufacturing, a company that makes easy chairs and couches for hotels, arrived in Atlanta two weeks ago to find that her connecting flight to Wilmington, N.C., was canceled, along with every other flight departing to both North and South Carolina. She decided to rent a car, but the seven-hour drive became harrowing as the roads became icy.

“I’m a south Georgia girl — I’m not used to that,” she said.

And her ordeal was nearly in vain. The next morning, Wilmington had snow and ice severe enough that none of Saberg’s contacts could make it into their office, so she spent the day trying to get caught up on work using her iPad. That evening, one of her contacts managed to get a neighbor to drive her to Saberg’s hotel, where the two met in the lobby.

“It was a good meeting, a little less formal than it would have been,” Saberg said.

“It meant a lot to them, too, that I had taken this on,” she said. “I think it will stay in their mind that I did that.”

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