By Lynn Adler and John Crawley
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Airlines canceled more than 3,000 weekend flights as Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast toward New York, forcing carriers to move planes to safer territory and disrupting service at the busiest U.S. hub.
As authorities prepared for ferocious winds, torrential rain and flooding, major U.S. carriers advised passengers to reconsider travel plans and moved planes away from airports from Washington to Boston.
Airport staff secured ground equipment as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control operations, said it was prepared to close airport control towers, if necessary.
"We are laying in supplies, things like tarps to throw over computers and electronics should we shut down the terminals, and plywood so that if there is any glass damage we can move quickly to secure those areas," said Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp.
The Northeast is the most congested area of U.S. air space, with the three New York-area airports alone handling nearly 100 million domestic and international passengers annually. Disruptions in the region ripple throughout the country and affect international flights as well.
Delta Air Lines said it was canceling 1,300 of its 16,500 flights systemwide from Saturday through Monday. This includes all flights on Sunday to and from New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports, and New Jersey's Newark.
JetBlue Airways scrapped nearly 900 flights through Monday, while American Airlines has canceled 235 flights for Saturday so far.
The magnitude of the air travel disruption from Irene is more commonly seen during winter snowstorms and not the busy summer, the most lucrative period for air travel.
Helane Becker, an analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co, estimated the impact to airlines from the storm could range from $5 million if it misses the coast, to $30 million to $40 million should there be a direct hit.
LIGHT PERIOD FOR AIR TRAVEL
The worst of the storm is expected to hit the mid-Atlantic region late Saturday night and Sunday morning, the lightest period for air traffic. But moving planes and restarting service can take time and may threaten more cancellations and delays on Monday.
Airlines and airports operated close to normal on Friday, and would make their own decisions on the level of flight cancellations and terminal closures as the evening progressed, carriers said.
American Airlines said it will shut down its Washington operations for 24 hours starting at noon EDT on Saturday and will probably make a decision about New York-area airports later on Friday.
JetBlue is moving about 50 aircraft out of New York and Boston areas to cities outside the path of the hurricane.
"We anticipate ... that we'll be able to recover more quickly with those aircraft and crews repositioned," JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said.
U.S. Airways Group cited "significant" flight reductions in the Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston areas for this weekend.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, at a ceremony outside Seattle for the Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner, said the agency has teams in place along the East Coast and should be "up and running" quickly if there were any control tower shutdowns.
Officials said no decisions have been made about FAA closures, but airport facilities often shut down for brief periods at least during the most severe storms.
Long Island MacArthur Airport on the Atlantic coast in New York is taking "every precaution," Commissioner of Aviation Teresa Rizzuto said.
"It does look like it's going right to the town of Islip ... a tidal surge will really hurt" surrounding areas, Rizzuto said.
But other airports and towns in Suffolk County -- farther east on Long Island -- are storing equipment and placing emergency vehicles at MacArthur because it is 99 feet above sea level and relatively protected from flooding, she added.
The Arca Airline index closed up 1.6 percent on Friday, in line with the broader market as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke raised hopes for more stimulus for the economy.
(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Philip Barbara)