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Weather hampers travel regionwide

MONDAY, DEC. 22, 2008

A blast of winter stranded hundreds of travelers in the Northwest on Sunday, with dozens of flights canceled in Seattle and Portland, and Greyhound passengers sleeping on cardboard at the company’s Seattle bus terminal.

More snowstorms are on the way and threaten to trouble holiday travel. The National Weather Service predicted snow to keep falling Sunday night and into today, giving way to biting temperatures. Another round of snow is expected to fall Wednesday and perhaps Christmas Day.

Spokane airport crews have been clearing runways, and while a few delays may occur, air travel this week should be normal spokesman Todd Woodard said.

Major mountain passes were open as of late Sunday, although conditions warranted chains requirements, including mandatory chains for commercial trucks on three Idaho passes.

Horizon Airlines canceled all of its Portland and Seattle flights Sunday afternoon. A weekend storm had dumped about 5 inches of snow in the Seattle area by Sunday morning, and the Weather Service said 4 more inches would fall to plague this morning’s commute.

In Seattle, a city with few plows and hilly streets, where even a rumor of snow was enough to cancel school for thousands of students last week, 5 inches is a lot. Some revelers took advantage by going cross-country skiing on biking or walking trails in the city, and others sailed down closed, snow-covered roads on makeshift sleds.

Two of the three runways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were operating, but airlines canceled scores of flights Saturday and Sunday, leaving several hundred people wondering when they’d next be on a plane, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said.

Several airlines urged passengers to rebook flights online, from their homes, rather than clog the airport’s ticket counters. Virgin America encouraged passengers not to fly out of Seattle on Sunday by waiving ticket-change fees for anyone who decided to stay home.

The airport in Portland also remained open, but with many canceled flights.

The Portland metropolitan area remained quiet the Sunday before Christmas as ice and snow closed roads, stores and churches.

Freezing rain overnight left a coating of ice on the snow that fell during Saturday’s third, and largest, storm of the week. More freezing rain, and some snow, arrived Sunday afternoon, and public safety officials asked people to stay home.

Individual carriers at Portland International Airport, including Alaska, Horizon and Southwest, were canceling hundreds of flights.

“We regret the impact these cancellations are having on our customers’ holiday travel plans,” said Ben Minicucci, Alaska Airlines’ chief operating officer. “These decisions are guided by our commitment to safety, and we are making every effort to re-accommodate passengers whose flight schedules have been disrupted.”

Though the runways were open, Kama Simonds, a spokeswoman for the Port of Portland, said the airport had only seven arrivals and 13 departures as of late Sunday afternoon. A typical Sunday sees about 465 flights in and out of the airport.

Those hoping to save money in tough economic times by taking the bus didn’t fare much better. A few dozen passengers were stranded at Greyhound’s Seattle terminal Sunday, with no buses running, and some people had been there for days. Fed up, some passengers rented cars and braved the slippery roads on their own.

Greyhound bus service out of Portland was canceled, with no decisions on further service expected until this morning.

“I’ve got phone books as a pillow,” said Greyhound passenger Phillip Barton, having given up hope of reaching his home in Ketchikan, Alaska, by Christmas.

Barton, a 30-year-old diesel mechanic, said he left Florida on Dec. 9 for a 3,754-mile trip to Bellingham, where he planned to catch a weekly ferry to Alaska. He arrived in Seattle on Tuesday, and said Thursday’s snow kept him from making it to Bellingham.

“As soon as I get there, I’ll get there,” he said. “I don’t particularly want to spend Christmas in a Greyhound station.”

Steven Jemison, a 39-year-old steakhouse chef from Osage Beach, Mo., was hoping to make it to his sister’s home in San Diego for Christmas, and was taking the bus because “with the economy, everyone’s trying to save as much money as they can.”

He’d been stuck at the Seattle terminal since Friday – but that was nothing new. He also had to wait in Chicago for four days and in Spokane for three due to inclement weather.

“It’s been like this all across the top part of the country,” he said.

Greyhound spokesman Eric Wesley in Dallas said the company was doing what it could. The company reported delays between Seattle and Billings, Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

“We’re going to do our best to take care of the passengers,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the weather does before we put any passengers on the highway.”

Amtrak also canceled train service Sunday between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., and between Seattle and Spokane. Service from Seattle to Los Angeles was still running, but with “extreme delays,” Amtrak said in a news release.

In Oregon, transportation agencies closed Interstate 84 in both directions between Troutdale and Hood River until at least this morning. The freeway reopened between La Grande and Baker City on Sunday afternoon, but chains were required.

Vehicles were banned on a portion of U.S. 26 and many secondary highways, including many roads to the coast. Chains were required on all Washington County roads and on state highways in the Portland area.

“It is amazing,” said David Thompson,” spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “You say to yourself: ‘That’s Portland?’ The roads are snow-packed, covered with ice, and it’s freezing rain.”


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