Home For Christmas? Airlines Are Trying

Amanda and Ben Harrison donning Santa, hats check their tickets as they enter security Friday, Dec. 22, 2006, at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on their way to Turks and Caicos. AP

Denver's airport was operating at close to capacity Saturday after being snowed in for two days, but for many travelers jammed in its terminals it was not expected to be enough to rescue their hopes of joining their families for Christmas.

Thousands of travelers whose flights were canceled by a blizzard that backed up air traffic across the U.S. were stuck on standby, trying to grab a rare empty seat on planes that were mostly booked.

"I just want to go home. I just want to see my family," said Jennifer Long of Denver, who was hoping to catch an afternoon flight to New Orleans, the city she left after Hurricane Katrina.

The busiest carrier at Denver International, United Airlines, planned to operate a full schedule of 900 departures and arrivals Saturday for the first time since the storm blew in Wednesday, burying the city in 2 feet of snow, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said. Flights were running "close to on schedule," she said.

The airport, the fifth-busiest in the U.S., had five runways open Saturday and expected to have all six runways cleared by Sunday, but it remained unclear when the backlog of passengers would be cleared out.

The jam in Denver backed up flights around the country heading into one of the busiest travel times of the year, and low visibility in Atlanta and wind in Philadelphia on Friday added to delays. About 9 million Americans planned to take to the air during the nine-day Christmas-to-New Year's period, the AAA estimates.

More than 3,000 incoming flights at Denver airport were canceled or diverted during the 45-hour shutdown that began Wednesday.

An estimated 4,700 travelers camped out at the airport that night, and close to 2,000 spent a second night on the hard floors and a few cots, hoping to get a place at the front of long lines at ticket counters. On Saturday, travelers waited in long lines that snaked around the terminal or sat on cots, working on laptops or playing computer games.

Passengers with long-standing reservations filled most of the outbound flights. Airline officials told unhappy travelers at the airport that they cannot simply bring in extra planes to clear the backlog, and that it could be Christmas — or later — before they can catch a plane.

At Other Airports Around The World:

  • Overseas, fog had grounded flights for most of the week at London's Heathrow Airport, stalling tens of thousands of people who had planned on taking flights at Europe's busiest airport. The fog finally started to lift on Saturday, and British Airways pledged to operate 95 percent of its scheduled flights.

  • In South America, flight cancellations and hours-long delays caused by overbooking and equipment problems had haunted Christmas travelers across Brazil since Tuesday. Even the Brazilian air force was called in to help move passengers with its fleet of eight passenger jets.

  • Some flights headed for Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport were delayed or diverted this morning because of dense fog. At least one incoming flight — a US Airways jet from Hawaii — was diverted to Las Vegas.

  • Flights were delayed by low visibility Friday in Atlanta and by wind in Philadelphia.

  • At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Army Spc. Nicholas Silva, of Aurora, curled up on a bench Friday for a third night in a terminal. He said he just hoped he could board a plane for home Saturday evening.

    "I've slept in worse areas so this doesn't bug me all that much," said Silva, who spent last Christmas stationed in Iraq and was heading home for the first time in two years. "I'll be home for Christmas. I can see my family. Does it really matter after that?"
    • Lloyd Vries

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