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Blizzards strand thousands in US

An East Coast blizzard that has forced nearly 7,000 US flight cancellations will leave many travellers stranded until the end of the week.

Runways reopened on Monday evening at several major airports in the north-east. But cancelled flights into and out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston left hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for a way home. The storm and its aftermath could end up costing the airlines 100 million dollars, one analyst predicted.

The challenge for the airlines goes beyond weather. Flights are usually full this time of year, making it difficult to rebook travellers affected by a cancellation. Seats are even more scarce than in past years because the airline industry has reduced the number of flights and grounded planes to save money and drive up prices.

"This is a bad time for a blizzard to hit the East Coast," said airline consultant Darryl Jenkins. He said it will be difficult for the airlines to accommodate all the stranded travellers in the New York area quickly enough, and some may abandon their travel plans.

The paralysing storm in the north-east comes a week after several inches of snow shut down London's Heathrow Airport and left travellers sleeping on terminal floors. It took five days for Europe's busiest hub airport to resume normal operations.

By afternoon, major US airlines had announced more than 3,100 cancelled flights for Monday. Continental, whose hub in Newark, New Jersey, was shut down by the storm, scrubbed 800 flights and Delta dropped 1,000. US Airways cancelled about 830 flights.

That came on top of at least 3,800 cancellations on Sunday, according to figures the airlines provided .

Once the snow is removed and the runways are open, the big job for the airlines will be helping crowds of stranded passengers find room on a limited number of flights. Many had decamped in the terminals because they couldn't find or get to hotel rooms.

In the best of times, it might take airlines two or three days to accommodate all those travellers on later flights. But this week could prove much more challenging. Planes were expected to be about 90%full during the week between Christmas and New Year, leaving fewer available seats than usual.

Before the storm hit on Sunday, airlines moved their jets out of its path so that they wouldn't be snowbound. Now they have to get their aircraft back into the affected areas.

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