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Holiday Travel Prospects Looking Up

A day after Denver's snowed-in airport reopened, United Airlines' plan to resume a full flight schedule Saturday provided little comfort to those unable to complete their travel plans by Christmas.

Some travelers gave up hope of making it home for the holidays as airlines running at near-full capacity had little room on planes for thousands stranded after Denver International Airport closed amid a blizzard.

Boulder resident Debbi Elliott arrived three hours early for a confirmed flight Friday, but the line at the ticket counter was so long she missed it. Rather than go standby, she gave up on spending the holiday in Detroit with her family.

"They were calling up people who had their flights canceled and were looking for a ticket when they could have been helping those with confirmed tickets," she said. "It's disappointing. I feel it's bad organization."

The jam in Denver backed up flights around the country heading into one of the busiest travel times of the year, with 9 million Americans planning to take to the skies during the nine-day Christmas-to-New Year's period.

More than 3,000 incoming flights alone were canceled or diverted from Denver during the 45-hour shutdown. United scrubbed more than two thousand flights, and Frontier 650. Southwest cancelled 179 flights, American 100, and Continental 39.

Elsewhere air travelers were met with other weather hassles:

  • 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.
  • On Friday, there were delays in Atlanta because of low visibility and in Philadelphia because of wind. A ripple effect affected flights at other airports, including Los Angeles and in Chicago.
  • At Chicago's O'Hare, delays averaged 45 to 60 minutes Friday evening, down from 60 to 90 minutes in the afternoon, said Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Wendy Abrams.

    Chicago's Midway Airport reported some 30-minute delays.

    "It looks like we're through the worst of it," Abrams said.

    Army Spc. Nicholas Silva, of Aurora, Ill., curled up on a bench at O'Hare and hunkered down Friday for a third night inside. After two nights on the bench — and another approaching — the soldier said he hoped to 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 is traveling 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?"

    An estimated 64.9 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home by air, rail and road during the holidays, according to AAA.

    Denver International, the nation's fifth-busiest airport, closed to all flights Wednesday when a blizzard buried the city in 2 feet of snow, closing schools, offices and stores at the very height of the Christmas rush.

    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.

    Airport officials did not have an estimate of how many people were still there Friday night.

    As planes began taking off again at noon Friday, passengers with long-standing reservations filled most of the outbound flights. That was bad news for those waiting to rebook flights canceled during the storm.

    Airline officials tried to explain to unhappy travelers at the airport that they cannot simply bring in extra planes to clear the backlog, and those stranded learned it could be Christmas — or later — before they can catch a plane at DIA.

    "When we get an airplane, we run it 10 hours a day every day," said Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas. "It's not like we can decide Dayton's not important and just pull some planes from there."

    Albuquerque, N.M., resident Alan Kuhn met another stranded passenger, Denise Brien, in Denver and they organized a group to rent a van to run back and forth to downtown hotels.

    On Friday, they decided they were standing in their last line.

    "I couldn't get Frontier, I couldn't get on the Web site and I couldn't get them on the phone," Kuhn said. "And that's when we said, 'If we can't get a flight today, we're going to drive.' The roads are open, the sun is out."

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