Would-be travelers growing weary of sleeping in airport

Denver International reopens

backup is a nightmare amid new arrivals

December 23, 2006|By Nicholas Riccardi | Nicholas Riccardi,Los Angeles Times

DENVER -- They told Michelle Sadesky she could leave yesterday, but she was skeptical. It was the third day she had been assured she was about to escape Denver International Airport.

"Every day we sleep on the marble floor until 4 in the morning," said Sadesky, a 34-year-old West Los Angeles, Calif., resident, sitting on a Red Cross-provided cot and clutching a coffee drink. "Then they put us on standby and say we can get out of here -- but then they say the airport's closing. I don't even know if I have any words for it."

Sadesky's Frontier Airlines flight from Los Angeles had touched down Wednesday morning, just as a blizzard socked in the fifth-busiest airport in the United States. Her connecting flight to New York was canceled. The roads out of town were closed.

She spent Wednesday night sleeping in line by the ticket counters, only to find that the flight she secured wasn't going anywhere. Yesterday, after another night sleeping in line, she clutched a new standby ticket.

The sun was shining on the high plains of Colorado, and the airport reopened after two feet of snow was cleared from its runways. But the logistical nightmare was far from over for thousands of passengers camped at Denver International -- and the thousands of others who joined them once the roads were clear.

Travelers jammed the terminals, forming lines that twisted through the concourse. The wait to even talk to a ticket agent ran several hours.

"I haven't even found the end of the line," said Marsha Atherton, 39, who came to the airport yesterday morning with her sister. They had holed up in a Denver hotel for two days after their return flight to Michigan was canceled Wednesday.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, there were several delayed departures yesterday because of weather problems elsewhere. The FAA reported that wind, rain or fog at airports including Denver, Chicago, New York and Atlanta had caused low visibility.

Those airports are some of the nation's busiest and some of the most popular destinations for BWI travelers. Causing the most backups locally were Chicago and Atlanta, each with a dozen or more flights a day from BWI. But few flights were canceled beyond snowy Denver, which partially reopened at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Yesterday was projected to be BWI's busiest travel day of the Christmas week -- Wednesday to next Tuesday -- with 65,000 people moving through the airport, compared with about 55,000 on a normal day. During the week, BWI officials expect about 370,000 passengers, 3.5 percent more than the same week last year.

"The airport itself is faring well," said Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman. "The lines are moving very efficiently. There are no security lines to speak off. It's busy but smooth. There are some delays to some airports; a half-hour here and a half-hour there. ... And that's not surprising for such a busy weekend."

United Airlines spokesman Jeff Kovick said there were delays throughout the day yesterday on flights headed into or out of Denver and Chicago, two of its major hubs. The airline was flying only about a third of scheduled flights to Denver yesterday.

The airline was bringing in larger planes and more workers from other airports to move the holiday travelers and some of those on the 2,000 flights that were canceled because of snow in Denver.

Kovick said passengers should check their flight's status with the airline before setting out for the airport, and those without a confirmed flight should not go to the airport. Flights are full, and passengers will not likely be able to fly standby. Those who were on canceled flights should call their travel agent or the airline to rebook at no cost.

United canceled more than 2,000 Denver flights, including about a dozen from Baltimore through yesterday morning.

In Denver, tensions ran high as the weary who had braved two nights in the airport faced off with would-be travelers who had just walked through the door. The new arrivals tried to slip into the lines in front of the ticket terminals early yesterday morning, sparking shouting matches. Police had to break up a scuffle.

Some people were fed up after days of waiting. Paulette Gross, 56, and her husband had been trapped in Denver. They slept on cardboard boxes for two nights and were promised a 2:30 p.m. United flight to Omaha, Neb. -- close enough to drive home to South Dakota. But a couple of hours before departure time, the flight was canceled.

"I am so disappointed with this airport," Gross, a church secretary, said as she wheeled out her luggage. Her pastor's son, an hour away in Colorado Springs, had agreed to drive them to Nebraska.

Nicholas Riccardi writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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