New York struggles through massive airport backlog
NEW YORK -- Airports trying to shepherd a backlog of planes churned snow plows through the night, kept snack bars open late and scrubbed teeming terminals in an effort to return thousands of passengers stranded by a weekend snowstorm to their homes.
Officials at the New York area's three major airports said runways were all open Wednesday morning but it might take days for all the passengers who've been camping out in terminals to get flights out.
By morning, most flights at New Jersey's Newark Liberty Airport were taking off and landing as scheduled. Continental Airlines said on its website that its hub there was nearly normal but that some cancelations and delays remained.
General delays were reported Wednesday morning at New York's Kennedy airport, where at least three airliners - two Cathay Pacific planes and a British Airways plane - were stuck for more than seven hours Tuesday while they waited for an open gate.
The airport remained filled Tuesday night with passengers on cell phones and laptops, trying to rebook flights, make hotel reservations or figure out alternate plans. Lines at counters for rental cars, ground transportation and lost luggage remained long throughout the day.
More than 5,000 flights were canceled at the three main airports in New York - 1,000 on Tuesday alone.
As airlines struggled to catch up, they dispatched planes to Kennedy without lining up gate space first, causing backups on the ground, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport.
Gigi Godfrey, of Belize, spent 10 hours trapped in a Cathay Pacific plane until the flight was finally able to deplane on Tuesday.
"It was so frustrating, just sitting there for hours, waiting for more bad news," the 24-year-old said. She was passing through New York after spending Christmas in Thailand and couldn't remember when she had first boarded a plane.
"I am so tired I don't even know what day yesterday is," she said.
Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the planes had taken off under the assumption that they would have somewhere to go upon landing. U.S. airlines operating domestic flights are not allowed to keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours, but international flights and foreign airlines are exempt from the rule.
At JFK's Terminal 7, exhausted would-be travelers trapped in the airport for hours - or in some cases days - had removed the rope barriers from around a British Airways advertising display touting "new, "roomier business class seats" and were sleeping, stretched out or slumped over, in the model airplane seats.
Airport staffers said a small Starbucks counter that was shuttered Tuesday had yet to reopen after running out of supplies on Sunday. The one remaining vendor, a Subway sandwich shop, had huge lines throughout the day.
Pedro Acero, a manager at ABM cleaning services, said he normally ran three shifts a day at the terminal, with 20 cleaners per shift.
He had finally been able to bring more staffers in Tuesday, to relieve the original pre-storm shift of 20 people. They had been working nonstop since Sunday to keep bathrooms, floors and walkways clean despite the huge volume of people sleeping in the airport, tracking ice and snow in on slippery floors, and using the bathrooms.
"We were sleeping and working in shifts, one group outside, then inside," Acero said.
Acero said at the height of the storm the pace of the snow accumulation had even been too much for the airport's snow melting machines.
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