Denver International Airport — the nation's fifth-busiest — was expected to begin limited operations at noon Friday, almost two days after a blizzard forced it to close runways.
More than 2,000 flights have been canceled, according to airline officials, creating a ripple effect that disrupted air travel around the country as the holiday crush began to build.
Two of the airport's six runways were set to open, reported Rick Salinger of CBS station KCNC-TV in Denver. A third runway is to open Friday night.
For those stranded in Denver and flying standby because they were unable to rebook a flight, finding a spot on crowded planes filled with holiday travelers could prove impossible this weekend.
Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said the airline has 65,000 bumped passengers to move systemwide and the airline is already 90 percent booked for the holidays.
"Do the math," he said.
United Airlines spokesman Jeff Kovick said it could be days before some people are able to get a flight out. "We're asking for their patience as we work to get people where they need to be as soon as we safely can," he said.
Near the cardboard shelter, cobbled together from boxes that workers used to carry blankets to hand out to stranded passengers, Jackson, Wyo., teacher Joanna Snyder and others searched in vain for information.
"It's all rumor," she said.
An estimated 4,700 travelers spent Wednesday night at the airport. By Thursday evening, however, many had found hotel rooms.
Among the 1,500 to 2,000 travelers remaining at the airport and hunkering down for their second night was Michele Bermudez.
Bermudez had to change planes in Denver on Wednesday while on her way from Tennessee to California and ended up at the terminal after spending eight hours in an airplane on the runway.
"I finally had to buy a T-shirt and some sweat pants," she said, showing off a souvenir shirt with the brightly-colored emblem reading "Denver."
It was the biggest snowstorm to hit Colorado since a March blizzard in 2003 that shut down the region and killed six.
The storm brought life to a standstill for 3.8 million people along the Front Range — a 170-mile urban corridor along the eastern edge of the Rockies that includes Denver.
Weather shut down Interstates 70 and 25. Public transportation came to a halt and cars were stuck in snowdrifts up to 12 feet high, Salinger reported.
Police and National Guard soldiers rescued hundreds of people stuck in cars. Other Guard patrols took people to critical medical appointments.
Some mountain areas got more than 3 feet of snow, and up to 25 inches fell in the Denver metropolitan area. Despite the slick roads and deep drifts, there were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries.
In Wyoming, however, a woman died while walking for help after her car became stuck in the snow, officials said. In Kansas, a woman was hit by a tractor-trailer on an icy road.
Denver's normally bustling downtown began showing signs of life as the sun came out Thursday afternoon. Mail delivery across the region was suspended, however, and many malls were closed on what should have been one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Aviation analyst Michael Boyd criticized the airport's handling of the snowstorm.
"With six runways, not even one can be open within a few hours? There's something wrong at DIA," he said. "Minneapolis doesn't have that problem, Salt Lake doesn't have that problem."
Airport spokesman Steve Snyder said plows were running during the storm, but the snow came fast and winds whipped drifts up to 5 feet high under the wings of grounded planes.
Plow managers expected to have two runways cleared by noon Friday. Other areas that needed to be cleared included deicing areas, taxi areas and stretches of tarmac. Ticket crews, Transportation Security Agency workers and other logistics still had to arranged before the airport could open.
"You can't just turn an airport on with a switch," Snyder said.