Some Passengers Will Wait Unit New Year for Flights Out of New York

December 29, 2010 - 7:03 AM

New York (AP) - Snow plows churned through the night, snack bars stayed open late and cleaning crews scrubbed round-the-clock to keep the terminals clean as New York's airports struggled to clear a huge backlog of flights that has stranded thousands of passengers across the United States.

Jetways were packed 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 on Tuesday while they waited for an open gate.

On Tuesday night the airport remained filled 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.

But the blizzard that hit the northeast on Sunday crippled more than just air travel. Streets across New York remained unplowed, with hundreds of buses and dozens of ambulances stuck in the snowdrifts. Subway lines and commuter trains were running slower because of signal problems and short-circuits caused by the snow. In New Jersey, tow trucks worked to clear abandoned cars from the interstates.

Airlines were dispatching planes to JFK 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 Godfrey 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.

In snowbound New York neighborhoods, frustration was building. 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.

Officials said they were hoping to have the streets cleared Wednesday, but made no promises.

"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.

On the other side of the Hudson River, Newark, N.J., 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.

In Asbury Park, N.J., a commuter train hit a tractor-trailer that got stuck at a railroad crossing. The driver had left the truck and no injuries were reported.

As people ventured out on Tuesday, more stories of the storm's impact began to emerge.

Brooklyn resident Annie O'Daly waited more than 30 hours for help after falling and breaking her ankle Sunday night at around 8 p.m., said Jim Leonhardt, her husband. An ambulance didn't arrive until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. Leonhardt had to help paramedics carry her out onto the unplowed street and over a snowbank.

The delays and cancellations were having a domino effect around the country.

The Downingtown High School band from suburban Philadelphia was trying to get to Southern California to perform in the Rose Parade. By Tuesday only 100 of the 300 musicians had made it, but Continental Airlines had found nearly enough seats for the rest, band director Brent Lewis said.

Carol Gibson, a 39-year-old unemployed business analyst, was stranded in San Francisco overnight Monday when the JetBlue plane that was supposed to take her home to Austin, Texas, got stuck in New York. She booked a flight home on Southwest. She said she is out about $375 because of a hotel room in San Francisco, the costlier flight and food.

"I'm not employed right now, so it's one of those double whammies," she said. "It's frustrating that I had to use some of my Christmas cash right away."

Jingyang Zhu's flight from Shanghai to Newark was diverted to Cleveland, where he passed the time playing cards with fellow travelers.

Another passenger on the flight, 39-year-old Sue Yao of Philadelphia wore a Cleveland souvenir T-shirt she had bought there. "Play hard, rest later," the shirt said.

"It was a special experience," she said of the delay.

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Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Chris Hawley, Meghan Barr, Samantha Gross, Sara Kugler Frazier and Dave Skretta in New York; Beth DeFalco in Asbury Park, N.J.; Stephanie Nano in Newark, N.J.; Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Kate Brumback in Sudbury, Mass.; Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix; Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia; and AP business writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.