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A Slow Start for Holiday Travelers
Many Flights Canceled as Snow Closes Denver Airport, Bad Weather Spans Nation

By Del Quentin Wilber and Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 22, 2006

Air travelers were stranded across the country yesterday as severe weather disrupted thousands of flights on one of the airlines' busiest days of the holiday season -- complicating plans of countless passengers trying to make it home for Christmas.

Travel was snarled by a major storm that dumped more than two feet of snow in Colorado and forced authorities to close the Denver airport for nearly two days.

Poor weather also struck overseas. London was hit with its worst fog in 15 years, causing a wave of flight cancellations.

United Airlines, which has a major hub in Denver, canceled 2,000 flights across its system since Wednesday. Other weather problems in the United States created additional delays that rippled through the country.

Low clouds, wind and rain hampered operations in Chicago and in the New York area. Flights into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport yesterday were delayed as much as four hours. Many flights into Newark or New York were backed up by more than one hour, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

The air traffic tie-ups frustrated many passengers who were trying to get home for the holidays.

"I'd trade my laptop right now for a clean pair of pants," said Jared Keith, a business traveler who was stuck at Denver's downtown Marriott hotel. "The whole thing is aggravating," said Keith, who was on his way home to California to be with his wife and two young daughters. "I haven't been able to do any Christmas shopping -- I bought some things at the airport gift shops, but that's it."

The National Weather Service said that the snowstorm was expected to taper off by last night. But rain is expected to batter the East Coast early today and into tomorrow. Heavy showers, which could further delay flights, are forecast this morning in Atlanta, the location of the nation's busiest airport, the Weather Service reported.

Even if the weather were to clear up, the damage to holiday travel plans may have been done, analysts said.

An estimated 2.3 million passengers were expected to use airports yesterday, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents U.S. airlines. Another 2.2 million were expected to board planes today, the group said.

Many stranded passengers could have a hard time getting on other flights. Airlines and analysts said that most flights were already near capacity. That reduces the ability of carriers to rebook customers.

Travelers on United and Frontier airlines, which have major operations in Denver, could face the toughest time. United representatives said that it could be several days before they can get passengers to their destinations. Frontier has had to cancel 555 flights since Wednesday. Denver is the nation's fourth-busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic.

"This obviously is having a significant impact on our operations," said Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman. She said stranded passengers should not go to the airport unless they have a confirmed reservation on an operating flight.

Clay Foushee, an industry consultant, predicted that passengers "will see fallout from this for days" even after Denver reopens because airlines will have to get planes to the right places to handle the traffic.

"It's the domino effect," he added.

Passengers were also dealing with delay-related headaches in Minneapolis, where snow was moving in yesterday afternoon. "Denver is closed and Chicago is delay, delay, delay," said airport volunteer Jeri Friedman, who was busy directing weary travelers to quiet corners to ease their pain. "Some want to go to a hotel, some want to rest. That's the story of today."

One passenger was hoping to reach Italy for the holidays but first had to go through Chicago and London. His flight to O'Hare airport had been delayed four hours, and counting.

"I felt so bad for the guy," Friedman said. "God knows when he'll finally get to Milan and where his bags will end up."

John Becke, in town for company training, chose the way of Zen and beer to deal with the delays. His scheduled 3:30 p.m. flight to Chicago was delayed until at least 8 p.m. Seated at an airport bar with a tall Schell FireBrick Amber Lager, a flavorful local brew, he had his laptop open.

"It is what it is. What are you going to do?" asked Becke with a shrug. "I have a bite to eat. I have a beer. The company's paying for my dinner."

Staff writers Chris Kirkham in Washington and Peter Slevin in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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