NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Big cot encampments and huge lines gave way to orderly, single-file queues and thawing tensions as flights left New York-area airports on time Wednesday, but clusters of tired, resigned passengers were still camped out waiting to go home.
Runways at the area’s three major airports — Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark — were all open Wednesday, officials said, but they cautioned that it might take days for all the passengers who’ve been camping out to get flights.
At Kennedy Airport there were sights not seen for days: long lists of on time flights, fully staffed information counters, National Guard troops patrolling the terminals and workers pushing long rows of empty luggage carts — previously so scarce and coveted that screaming matches broke out over who would get them.
The massive lines of recent days gave way to snaking check-in queues. Those showing up for Wednesday flights fared much better than those who had been booked on flights earlier in the week; the latter were told they couldn’t travel until after the new year.
An exhausted sense of camaraderie in the face of perceived indifference by airport officials had set in among the stranded. People shared phone chargers, made coffee runs, commiserated over convenience store meals and minded luggage during bathroom breaks.
Tommy Mokhtari, of Dubai, was desperate to leave the United States on Wednesday, as his three-month tourist visa expired on Sunday. A professional poker player, Mokhtari said he was facing expensive lawyers’ fees to remedy being “out of status” as well as a $600 to $800 penalty to rebook his tickets home to Dubai.
“I waited 4 hours in the queue just to speak to someone,” he said. “Just to get the news that I have to wait a few more days. They really need to have a backup plan. I will never ever travel again in December, never on American Airlines, and never through New York.”
Most flights at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport were taking off and landing as scheduled Wednesday. Continental Airlines said on its website that its hub there was nearly normal but that some cancelations and delays remained.
Philadelphia International Airport reported virtually no delays, cancellations or stranded overnight passengers.
“It’s looking really good here,” spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said Wednesday morning.
In snowbound neighborhoods in New York, where hundreds of buses and dozens of ambulances got stuck in the snowdrifts, unplowed roads still hampered bus service Wednesday morning. Officials, while making no promises, had said they hoped to have streets cleared by later in the day.
“It’s a bad situation and we’re working together to correct it,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. Some 1,000 vehicles had been removed from three major New York City-area expressways alone, the mayor said.
General delays were reported Wednesday morning at New York’s Kennedy airport, where at least three airliners 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 it 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.
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.
In New York, service on trains plagued by snow-generated signal problems and short-circuits was improving but not back to normal days after the storm. The Long Island Rail Road, the nation’s largest commuter railroad, had only seven of its 11 lines running.
In an Internet video that instantly went viral, New Yorkers were shown shouting epithets at a city crew that crashed into a parked car while trying to free a construction vehicle.
In hard-hit New Jersey, politicians debated the merits of a law that leaves the Senate president in charge of the state when the state’s top two leaders — in this case Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — are absent. Christie is vacationing at Disney World in Florida until Thursday, Guadagno in Mexico.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker personally helped some residents dig out their cars and was using Twitter to respond to others seeking help. Booker said he’s “set a record for Diet Coke consumption” since Sunday night.
“I’m still getting a lot of tweets for help, so I’m going to stay with this for a while longer,” he said.
(Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)