Despite progress digging out the region's blizzard-crippled airports, grounded planes, delayed flights and buried gates will continue Wednesday, with officials warning "full speed" operations may still be days away.
At Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark-Liberty airports, departures ran about 70 percent Tuesday - with a total of 966 cancellations by early evening, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports. Long Island-MacArthur Airport operations returned to normal Tuesday, but the facility hosted scores of dispirited travelers into the afternoon.
"That's the horrific part of a huge storm in what's a very busy travel week," MacArthur commissioner Teresa Rizzuto said. "People might not get out and they might not get out for a long time."
Scrambling to find seats
With planes at or near capacity during the holidays, airlines scrambled to find seats for stranded passengers.
"It's kind of like a puzzle," said US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder. "Trying to get everybody out when we can, as soon as we can. Doing our best to rebook them as soon as we can."
"We're crawling back to normalcy," he said.
At least four international flights idled on Kennedy's tarmac for six to 10 hours starting Monday night after what officials said were communication lapses between airlines and airport staff that expected them at different terminals.
"It was just one problem compounding another," said John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways. The airline's first flight into Kennedy waited eight hours for a gate and U.S. Customs workers to allow passengers into the airport.
Inside the terminals, other stranded passengers clutched cots and overturned plastic bins that doubled as chairs, and complained of workers who wouldn't supply blankets or who answered their requests with cold stares.
"I would rather be stranded here than on the side of the road," he said.
Others saw highways as an appealing option. Chris and Debora Damm of Blaine, Minn., had visited family in North Bellmore but found their flight from LaGuardia canceled Monday. They rented a minivan for themselves, their 1- and 3-year-old children and their Christmas presents.
Keeping their sanity
"What we're doing is the best option to keeping the kids' sanity," Chris Damm said. "And our sanity."
By the time the family is on the road today, airlines hope to have significantly cut into their cancellation rate.
JetBlue grounded 1,000 of its 2,500 flights out of Kennedy Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but was looking forward to additional runways opening and moving more flights today.
"It's just a lot of snow," said airline spokesman Mateo Lleras. "I'd tell you we we're going to run a full schedule (Wednesday), but it's been very difficult to get the operation at top shape."
With Jo Napolitano, Zeke Miller and John Valenti