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Snowbound Denver airport reopens; flights are backlogged

Jets were lined up on the taxiway at Denver International Airport, which opened yesterday after being snowed in for two days. The closure backed up flights around the country. (WILL POWERS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

DENVER -- Denver's airport was operating at close to capacity yesterday 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 nationwide 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 yesterday 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 nation's fifth-busiest, had five runways open yesterday and expected to have all six runways cleared by today, but there was no telling 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 are expected to take to the air during the nine-day Christmas-to-New Year's period, the AAA estimates.

By yesterday, New York businessman Todd Pavlo and his 16-year-old son had spent two nights on airport benches at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. They waited and hoped through seven standby flights to Salt Lake City, where they were going to see family.

"At this rate, I'm going to be here well into January," said Pavlo, 47, who ended up booking two one-way tickets to Salt Lake -- for $700 each -- on a flight leaving today. "Now everybody is starting to get irate. . . . We're all sitting together. We're actually living together following gate to gate all day long."

At Denver, more than 3,000 incoming flights alone 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.

Yesterday, travelers waited in 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 could catch a plane.

Jerry Escobedo, a contract worker at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, said he waited on hold for 90 minutes to talk to a Frontier Airlines agent to learn that the Seattle flight he was booked on for Christmas Eve was the earliest he was going to get.

Army Specialist Nicholas Silva, of Aurora, spent a third night in an O'Hare terminal Friday. He said he just hoped he could board a plane for home yesterday 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?"

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