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Airports and airlines brace for a major impact from Hurricane Ian

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(CNN) — Airlines, airports and the federal government are bracing for aviation infrastructure to take a major blow from Hurricane Ian. Cancellations and closures are already piling up across the Florida peninsula.

The storm is forecast to make landfall Wednesday evening on Florida’s west coast as a major hurricane.

Tampa International Airport, where officials are preparing for a major impact, is suspending operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The airport will only be open for emergency aircraft, according to a publicly available notice to pilots. The airport typically handles 450 flights daily.

Florida airports lead in US cancellations

FlightAware data shows more than 1,600 cancellations nationwide Wednesday. Orlando, Miami and Tampa airports round out the top three trouble spots, though the effects could ripple through the southeastern United States with Atlanta and Charlotte already seeing cancellations.

The terminal at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport closed at 1 p.m. on Tuesday “due to mandatory evacuation orders from Pinellas County and remain closed until the evacuation order is lifted,” according to the verified tweet from the airport.

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport announced it will be closed starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday night.

Commercial operations at Orlando International Airport (MCO) will cease at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to an update from the airport on Tuesday.

The decision was made after conferring with the National Weather Service, airlines and federal partners, airport officials said.

The airport sees nearly 130,000 passengers daily, according to its website.

FAA closely monitoring Ian

The Federal Aviation Administration is holding a Tuesday evening teleconference about the impact of Hurricane Ian on air travel, according to a notice on an agency website.

“The FAA is closely monitoring Hurricane Ian and its path,” the agency said in a statement, underscoring that it does not cancel commercial flights.

“Before any storm hits, we prepare and protect air traffic control facilities and equipment along the projected storm path so operations can quickly resume after the hurricane passes to support disaster relief efforts.”

American Airlines says it has proactively canceled 175 flights as of Tuesday morning, including both mainline and regional flights.

American customers traveling through 20 airports in the hurricane’s path can rebook flights without change fees. The airline has also added “reduced, last-minute fares for cities that will be impacted” in hopes of helping people who are trying to “evacuate via air.”

Moving aircraft to safer places

Multiple airlines are moving aircraft out of harm’s way and note it will take time to reestablish service after the storm. First, officials and the airlines must determine when and where it is safe to resume flights, and then they must have crews on the ground available.

“Our in-house weather forecasting is a powerful tool to aid in ops decision making, but equally important are the conditions of ground infrastructure after the storm passes,” Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant told CNN.

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines are suspending operations at the Fort Myers and Sarasota airports. United is also canceling all Tuesday and Wednesday flights to and from Key West and is canceling some flights out of Orlando “as to minimize crew layovers.”

Riding out the storm in Tampa

At Tampa International Airport, a team of 120 airport employees have volunteered to stay on site and ride out the storm, airport executive John Tiliacos said Tuesday. The team includes tradesmen like plumbers and electricians who will be essential to restoring service at the airport.

“Once the storm has passed, our team will conduct a damage assessment of our airfield and terminal facilities and determine whether we can reopen immediately or whether we have issues that we need to address as a result of the hurricane impact,” Tiliacos said.

He raised the possibility of the runways reopening to essential flights before the passenger terminal reopens. The facilities are rated for a Category 4 storm, but the airfield could see flooding from the nearby bay.

Ian is forecast to make landfall as a Category 3 storm.

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