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Blackout grounds planes, costs air industry millions

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Thousands of airline passengers were left stranded at Queens’ two airports when the electricity went out last Thursday afternoon, a crisis that could cost the air travel industry tens of millions of dollars, Port Authority and industry officials said.

Back-up generators came on line at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports to supply the air traffic control towers with power to land arriving planes, but security posts, baggage check-ins and ticketing consoles were dark, preventing additional flights from leaving for several hours, said Port Authority spokesman Alan Hicks.

Limited take-offs resumed about 9 p.m. last Thursday for both airports that were using generator power. Full electricity was restored to LaGuardia Airport about 6:30 p.m. Friday and to Kennedy about 45 minutes later, Hicks said.

“The next few days here are going to be a nightmare,” Andres Franco, ticketing agent for British Airways said last Thursday. “There’s nothing to do but wait for power to be restored.”

The delays and cancellations from the nation’s worst power shutdown rippled through the industry, causing additional scheduling problems, airline officials said. Forest Hills-based JetBlue canceled about 22 flights out of Kennedy Airport — two on Thursday and 20 Friday, said airline spokeswoman Fiona Morrisson.

“We fared relatively well given the breadth of the outage,” she said. “We didn’t want to pull the plug completely, so to speak. We wanted to have the planes and everything in position to keep going once the power came back on.”

American Airlines, which flies out of both Kennedy and LaGuardia, canceled a total of 483 flights systemwide between Thursday and Saturday, said spokeswoman Jacquie Young. Delta Airlines canceled 227 flights over the three-day span, a Delta spokeswoman said.

Exact figures on how much the blackout will cost the airlines were still being tallied, but one airline spokeswoman put the industry-wide expense at more than $10 million.

The airlines worked with the Port Authority and the Transportation Security Administration under generator power to move passengers through the terminals, Morrisson said.

“We had to check people in manually, we had to do security manually, we had to sort the bags manually,” she said. “We had to board planes manually. We couldn’t move the jetways, so we had to take people through the doors and out to the planes.”

Travelers made the best of the situation, taking naps using their luggage as makeshift pillows, trying to find an alternate way to their destination, or simply waiting it out.

“My flight was supposed to leave this morning, but I’m still waiting to hear,” one Forest Hills woman bound for Florida said Friday afternoon. “I just hope I can still leave today.”

Reporter Tien-Shun Lee contributed to this story.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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