Rental Cars Moved to New York Post Sandy -- But It's Not Enough

Cars stuck in Sandy's flood waters, in Oyster Bay, New York. (Photo CC by Flickr user CasualCapture)

Rental car companies are driving in tens of thousands of extra vehicles to help avert a holiday shortage in the New York City region.  But it's not enough to ease the post-Sandy crush during an already almost impossible time to find a car in the area.

Sandy destroyed or damaged between 100,000 and 250,00 cars, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association and one rental car company estimate provided to TN. At the same time, the storm closed, hampered, or damaged rental car branches and vehicles throughout the New York area. The final blow is transit: Sandy injected enough uncertainty into regional rail and bus service schedules that many would-be riders booked rental cars. All just in time for the biggest travel weekend of the year.

"Tight availability is typical of any holiday weekend," explained Paula Rivera, a spokesperson for Hertz. "For those who haven't made reservations, the availability is extremely tight at this point in time. So the probability of securing a car for travel over Thanksgiving weekend is slim," she said.

Travel websites had scant options Tuesday afternoon. Travelocity returned no available rental cars at all. Orbitz had 18 cars in total for all of New York City. Other sites delivered more results, at higher than average prices, and often suggested cargo or moving vans as the cheaper options.

"We're suggesting for people who have not made a reservation at this juncture to maybe look outside of New York City... where it might be a little bit better," Rivera said.

Enterprise, which owns several rental car companies, said some neighborhood branches remained closed because they just didn't have cars. “Although we are working hard to increase our local fleet as quickly as possible, there are still significant waiting lists in some communities where residents are requesting replacements for their damaged vehicles,” said Matt Darrah and executive vice president at Enterprise Holdings. "Despite our best efforts to be prepared, the magnitude of the storm has simply outstripped our resources and manpower in some locations."

Car rental companies don't stockpile cars for disaster. That wouldn't make financial sense. An idle and unrented automobile on a company lot is losing money. So to adapt to spikes in demand, rental companies use sophisticated demand management systems that move cars from region to region.
Hertz said it is relocated "thousands" of cars to the New York City area in the days just following Sandy. Enterprise issued a detailed statement that said 12 thousand cars had been moved in from as far off as Colorado with another 5,000 on the way. An additional 10,000 new cars slated for other regions were being diverted to New York and New Jersey.
Philadelphia rental branches experienced shortages last week as business travelers turned to cars as a substitute for inconsistent rail service.

"These rental fleets, whether it's Enterprise or Hertz or Budget, they only carry so many excess vehicles because every vehicle sitting on the lot is something that they are paying for," said Paul Eisenstein of the Detroit Bureau, an auto industry expert.

Rental car companies he said, "are not in business to keep vehicles around for an emergency ... They are not going to be keeping tens or hundreds of thousands of extra vehicles around in case there is a hurricane. That's just bad business."