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Denver airport reopens after snowstorm

Backlog of flights could take all weekend to clear

    DENVER — Denver’s airport was operating at close to capacity Saturday 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 Saturday 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 Saturday and expected to have all six runways cleared by Sunday, but there was no telling when the backlog of passengers would be cleared out.
    ‘‘You combine what would have been a busy holiday as it was, and you throw in a few thousand more stranded passengers, it’s obviously busy,’’ airport spokesman Steve Snyder said.
    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 planned to take to the air during the nine-day Christmas-to-New Year’s period, the AAA estimates.
    By Saturday, 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 Sunday. ‘‘Now everybody is starting to get irate. ... We’re all sitting together. We’re actually living together following gate to gate all day long.’’
    Overseas, fog had grounded flights for most of the week at London’s Heathrow Airport, stalling tens of thousands of people who had planned on taking flights at Europe’s busiest airport. The fog finally started to lift Saturday, and British Airways pledged to operate 95 percent of its scheduled flights.
    In South America, flight cancellations and hours-long delays caused by overbooking and equipment problems had haunted Christmas travelers across Brazil since Tuesday. Even the Brazilian air force was called in to help move passengers with its fleet of eight passenger jets.
    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 Thursday night on the hard floors and a few cots, hoping to get a place at the front of long lines at ticket counters. Snyder said he did not know how many were there overnight Friday night but said it was fewer than the night before.
    On Saturday, travelers waited in long 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 can 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.
    ‘‘It’s been an interesting experience, I guess you could say. You just have to make the best of it,’’ he said.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Kim Nguyen and Chase Squires in Denver, Brad Foss in Washington, Jonathan Landrum in Atlanta, Stephen Majors in Orlando, Fla., and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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