8:45am

Wed December 29, 2010
U.S.

Airlines Play Huge Game Of Catch-Up In NYC Area

Most flights resumed by Wednesday at airports in the Northeast that had been socked in by a major Christmas weekend snowstorm, but many stranded holiday travelers still were waiting to rebook and get home.

Snowplows worked overtime to clear runways at some of the nation's busiest airports -- New York's John F. Kennedy and La Guardia and New Jersey's Newark Liberty.

On New York City streets, hundreds of buses and dozens of ambulances remained stuck in drifts, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was forced to defend himself against discontent over the city's handling of snow removal.

At a mid-day news conference Wednesday, Bloomberg acknowledged that the cleanup was taking longer than he had hoped.

"A lot of people are still having trouble getting to work," he said, adding that there still were uncleared residential streets in the various boroughs, especially Brooklyn.

Bloomberg said he was also "extremely dissatisfied" with the way the cities emergency response systems had performed.

During a period when 911 services had what he said was the sixth-highest volume of calls ever, "it appears the system became overloaded.

"In some cases, it took hours to respond to emergencies," the mayor said.

Critics have blamed budget cuts to the city's transportation department for the problems, and city council officials have promised public hearings to find out what went wrong.

Normally, the city tries to plow every street within 36 hours of the end of a storm. But that deadline passed and the city is now aiming to do the same thing within 50 hours. Mass transit also continued to suffer significant disruptions with widespread delays, alternative schedules and cancellations.

Although most flights were resuming Wednesday, general delays were still being reported at New York's JFK airport, where at least three airliners -- two Cathay Pacific planes and a British Airways plane -- were stuck for more than seven hours Tuesday while they waited for an open gate.

Since the weekend, more than 5,000 flights have been canceled at the three main airports in New York -- 1,000 on Tuesday alone.

As airlines struggled to catch up, they dispatched 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.

Airline consultant Bob Harrell said the inconveniences were likely to go on for at least a few more days.

"Most of the passengers who were not accommodated and whose flights were canceled -- if they still want to go -- will probably be moved to off-peak flights ... on a standby basis," he said.

The Honchell family's Christmas holiday in Costa Rica ended in frustration as they became stranded at the Newark airport's Terminal C. After making the long flight back from Central America, they only needed another hour in the air to get home to Washington.

Wendy Honchell said the ticketing counter closed abruptly at midnight, provoking an angry response from frustrated passengers.

"We haven't even seen anybody to find anything out" after more than six hours in line, she said.

At JFK's Terminal 7, stranded travelers had nearly overrun the lone vendor still open -- a Subway sandwich shop.

In New York, service on trains plagued by snow-generated signal problems and short-circuits was improving but not back to normal. The Long Island Rail Road had only seven of its 11 lines running.

In hard-hit New Jersey, politicians debated the merits of a law that leaves the Senate president in charge of the state when the state's top two leaders -- in this case Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno -- are absent. Christie is vacationing at Disney World in Florida until Thursday, Guadagno in Mexico.

NPR's Bruce Konviser in Newark and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.