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Dire snow predictions shut down LaGuardia

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It was Carlos Figueroa’s first time in New York City. It was also his first time seeing snow. And after his 6:45 p.m. flight back to Miami was canceled Monday, he looked out over the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport and watched the flakes mix with sleet and freezing rain in what turned out to be an overhyped winter storm.

“We were going to call first, but we came directly and found out the flight was canceled,” said Figueroa, a beefy 21-year-old aspiring artist from Miami, who had seats on Spirit Airlines. While he spoke, his traveling partner was off at a nearby phone bank, trying to arrange lodging for the night.

In the end, New York City was spared the brunt of a sluggish nor’easter that meteorologists initially predicted would deposit as much as two feet of snow in the five boroughs. Anticipating a storm equal in magnitude to the Blizzard of 1996 — when the city was buried beneath more than two feet of snow — 70 percent of flights arriving at and leaving from LaGuardia Airport were canceled Monday, said Greg Treavor, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Those decisions were made by the airlines,” he said. Typically, there are 1,200 takeoffs and landings at LaGuardia among 25 airline carriers, he said. Because of the storm, only 350 flights left LaGuardia on Monday, a number that increased to 750 on Tuesday even as the system continued to hover over the borough.

TWA, though, was undaunted. No one was on line at the departures terminal Monday evening, since Flight 167 bound for St. Louis, Mo., had departed on time at 5:29 p.m., a ticket agent said. Before that, Flight 519 also took off as scheduled at 2:25 p.m. Ordinarily, seven flights a day leave the TWA terminal at LaGuardia, but on Monday night, Flight 167 was the last one, she said.

The scene at John F. Kennedy International Airport was somewhat different. Unlike LaGuardia, it usually schedules 1,000 flights a day. On Monday, 375 of them had been canceled, but by Tuesday that number decreased to 87, owing to the larger proportion of international flights that the airport books, Treavor said.

Invariably, cancellations touch off a painful next phase at LaGuardia as luggage carriers, bartenders and taxicab drivers prepared to face cranky travelers.

Dudoon Mahabir, a luggage carrier, sat slumped on a metal bench in an empty arrivals terminal on the ground level. There was nothing to do since virtually no one was arriving. It was 5:30 p.m., and he could count on his fingers the number of flights that had come in all day: three.

“I’m just killing time,” he said. He pointed at the escalator and said the action was all happening upstairs.

If action is measured in relative numbers of people, Mahabir was right: there were more people in departures than arrivals. But Josephine Fernandez — her nametag, she points out, says Josie — said there was little action. She was the adjunct bartender Monday night at Hangars Bar and Grill, where she served just 20 drinks, including a pint of soda to an airport worker. The usual guy who tends bar took the day off. The bar was desolate just like the tarmac.

“So if it is slow today, it’ll be very busy later this week,” Josie said. Then she jabbed her finger at a slogan that suited an airport bar named Hangars: “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.” She laughed. When the hordes of travelers arrive Wednesday, she said, she won’t be laughing.

Outside the terminal, Mohammed Shahedullah seemed to be enjoying himself, even though a wintry concoction of sleet and snow was bombarding him as he removed chunks of ice from the windshield of his taxi. A Continental flight was due in around 7 p.m., and he was one of a dozen taxicab drivers lined up in front of the terminal, waiting for customers. It was 6:45 p.m., the sleet and freezing rain had already glazed the roadway, and the precipitation was beginning to turn into snow. The road conditions were looking messy.

But Shahedullah had a safety tip that he said none of his competitors knew: lower the pressure in the back tires, which he said would prevent skidding. He flashed the thumbs-up sign and hopped back in his taxi.

Meanwhile, as much as he was enamored of the city, Figueroa wanted to fly back to Miami. Another stranded passenger, he said, was able to convert his Spirit Airlines ticket into a seat on United Airlines, but he and his friend could not.

As he stood in a waiting area where an older woman was sprawled out on a bench sleeping, he said he would consider applying to art schools in the city.

“Usually, when you visit someplace, you feel uncomforta­ble,” he said. “But not in New York City.”

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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