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Friday, December 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Denver flights resume after blizzard

The Associated Press

DENVER – Denver's snowbound airport reopened this afternoon to limited flights, chipping away at a national travel backlog but leaving thousands of travelers in Denver and elsewhere days behind their Christmas travel schedules.

The first passenger flight in two days was a Frontier Airlines Airbus A-319, carrying a full load of 132 passengers to Atlanta.

Airline officials weren't offering much cheer to the thousands of still-stranded travelers, though: It could take days to clear out the backlog, and some passengers might not make it home for Christmas.

"We're asking for their patience as we work to get people where they need to be as soon as we safely can," said United Airlines spokesman Jeff Kovick.

More than 2,000 flights were canceled Wednesday through Friday at Denver, the nation's fifth-busiest airport, causing a ripple effect that disrupted air travel around the country just as the holiday crush began. Rain east of the Mississippi river added to the mess, causing delays in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, among other cities.

Many of the travelers stranded in Denver found themselves on standby Friday morning, hoping to get on another flight at a time when open airline seats are scarce.

"It's like the movie '(The) Terminal,' except it's real," said Joanna Snyder, a teacher from Jackson, Wyo., referring to the 2004 moving starring Tom Hanks as a European stranded at a U.S. airport.

Every now and then, tempers flared in the crowded terminal lines as travelers waited for the expected noon reopening of the runways.

When a few people tried to cut in line at a Frontier Airlines counter around 3 a.m., former Marine Javier Diaz confronted them.

"I grabbed the stanchion and basically just put it in front of them and said they weren't going to get in line," Diaz said. "It got pretty heated."

Airline workers eventually smoothed out the problem, he said.

Frontier had 65,000 bumped passengers to move systemwide, and the airline was already 90 percent booked for the holidays, Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas.

Atlanta businessman Scott Carr was one of them. While dozens of plows vainly battled the still falling snow on the runways Thursday, Carr booked four flights on three different airlines to increase his chances of making it home for Christmas. He said he was considering driving to Kansas City to catch a flight.

"I just want to get home to see my family," Carr said as he stood in a Frontier Airlines line that wrapped around to the opposite side of the terminal. "If I have to drive, at least I'll be getting closer."

An estimated 4,700 travelers spent Wednesday night at the airport. By Thursday evening, about two-thirds of them had found hotel rooms, but others still slept on cots in the airport, in chairs or wrapped up in coats and cardboard shelters on the concourse floors.

Workers in orange vests directed the human traffic and offered blankets and what other supplies they could to the stranded travelers.

The storm, Colorado's worst since a March 2003 blizzard, brought life to a standstill for 3.8 million people along the Front Range — a 170-mile urban corridor along the eastern edge of the Rockies that includes Denver.

Some mountain areas got more than 3 feet of snow, and up to 25 inches fell in the Denver metropolitan area. Bus and train service was shut down. Police and National Guard soldiers rescued hundreds of people stuck in cars.

In Wyoming, a woman died while walking for help after her car became stuck in the snow, officials said. In Kansas, a woman was hit by a tractor-trailer on an icy road.

Denver's normally bustling downtown began showing signs of life as the sun came out, but mail delivery was still suspended and many malls were closed on what should have been a busy shopping day.

The Denver airport hoped to get 100 stranded aircraft off the ground within the first hour of reopening, then begin allowing carriers to arrive at a rate of about 10 per hour, said Southwest Airlines chief dispatcher Mike Tyson. His airline normally flies 32 daily flights from Denver and had to cancel 13 on Friday.

"They're going to start slowly and see how things go," Tyson said.

The airport's goal is to allow carriers to arrive at a rate of 30 aircraft per hour, or one quarter of full capacity, by Friday afternoon, he said.

Aviation analyst Michael Boyd criticized the airport's handling of the snowstorm.

"With six runways, not even one can be open within a few hours? There's something wrong at DIA," he said. "Minneapolis doesn't have that problem, Salt Lake doesn't have that problem."

Airport spokesman Steve Snyder said plows were running during the storm, but the snow came fast and winds whipped drifts up to 5 feet high under the wings of grounded planes.

Plow managers expected to have two runways cleared by noon Friday. Other areas that needed to be cleared included deicing areas, taxi areas and stretches of tarmac. Ticket crews, Transportation Security Agency workers and other logistics still had to arranged before the airport could open.

"You can't just turn an airport on with a switch," Snyder said.

Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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