Image: Stranded traveler
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images
A traveler sleeps by his bags while stranded at Terminal 4 following a major blizzard at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/27/2010 4:53:10 PM ET 2010-12-27T21:53:10

Just two days after Christmas, a blizzard has left travelers in the Northeast United States feeling anything but merry.

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Airlines have canceled more than 5,000 flights, and the powerful storm has shut down La Guardia, John F Kennedy International and Newark International airports, stranding hundreds of holiday travelers.

Story: Flights resume at New York airports

Runways were expected to reopen this evening at several major airports in the Northeast. Still, hundreds of thousands of passengers missed flights Sunday and Monday into and out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

"It's the passengers that have already been waiting that are going to be waiting a long time," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "Everyone who has been stranded needs to fit into available seats."

Seats are already scarce because of the busy holiday season, and airlines are operating fewer flights than they did before the recession.

"It usually takes three to five days to re-accommodate everyone," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "Many passengers decide to get a refund and not travel."

Video: What to do when you're stranded (on this page)

'Cool heads will prevail'
Boston's Logan Airport spokesman Phil Orlandella said airlines were saying that rebooking could drag into Friday — the start of another holiday weekend.

Patience might be the most effective tool for travelers who are stranded. "Employees are doing their best, airports are doing their best," said Glen MacDonnell, AAA's director of travel services. "Cool heads will prevail."

Slideshow: The East Coast digs out (on this page)

Airlines move planes away from the path of big storms to prevent them from being stranded. Now the airlines have to get those planes back to the Northeast before they can fly stranded passengers home. They may also have to ferry pilots and flight attendants into the affected areas.

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American Airlines spokesman Ed Martelle said if the weather clears by Tuesday, the airline can resume a normal schedule by Wednesday. He declined to say how long stuck passengers might wait for an empty seat.

"Any airline scheduler will tell you it's like playing with a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces keep changing shape," he said. "In some cases we can't give them a new seat because we don't know" when one will be available.

Stick around the airport
"As long as flights are going out, there's always a chance — however slim — that you'll get that last seat on the plane, so if I were desperate to fly I'd stick around the airport and keep trying," said Hobica.

On Monday, American canceled 252 flights and sister carrier American Eagle scratched another 194. Delta Air Lines canceled 700 flights, US Airways canceled 690 including regional flights, and Southwest dropped 188. United spokesperson Mike Trevino said the airline canceled 175 flights.

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"Airlines are not obligated to put you up in a hotel or to feed you because of weather," said AAA's MacDonnell.

"You need to be as flexible as you possibly can," added Travelocity's Shaw Brown. "[Travelers] have to suck it up and pay for it. Airlines are not responsible for things that are out of their control."

Fewer flights, more passengers
U.S. airlines have not fully replaced all the flights they eliminated in 2008 and 2009 to save money and fuel. Planes are packed with more passengers — occupancy averaged around 80 percent in November and was expected to be higher during the holidays. That means fewer empty seats the rest of the week to accommodate people whose flights were canceled Sunday and Monday.

Airline reservation centers were kept busy fielding calls from displaced travelers, some of whom reported being put on hold for more than an hour. Continental tweeted that it was taking as many calls as it could handle, asking passengers to be patient. American said it called in extra employees to staff the phone lines.

Some travelers were settling in for a long and uncomfortable stay at the airport.

At New York's Kennedy Airport, 22-year-old Eric Schorr and other Columbia University students boarded an El Al flight to Israel Sunday afternoon, only to get stuck on the tarmac when it became clear the plane wouldn't take off.

"They had served us dinner, they were giving us drinks, trying to keep passengers calm, cool and collected," said Schorr, who was told he would be put on another flight Monday night.

"It wasn't as tense as you might have thought," he said, but added, "People are exhausted — they want to get home."

Travel writer Jason Cochran has been at the airport since 4 p.m. Sunday. He says he boarded his flight to London and was then stuck on the plane for hours before the flight was canceled.

He hasn't been able to get back to his Manhattan home because there's no way to leave the airport. Cochran said he's only seen one taxi, and the driver wanted $100 to take him home.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: What to do when you're stranded

  1. Closed captioning of: What to do when you're stranded

    >>> airports in new york predict they'll fly this afternoon. the flights were already packed. an exercise in patience trying to clear the backlog. genevieve shaw brown a senior travel editor at travelocity. for the folks who already have flights scheduled for, say, this afternoon, tonight, tomorrow morning , let's talk about them first. are they getting bumped to accommodate for the people who were --

    >> no. that's not how it works. everyone who has been stranded, who's flights have been cancelled and delayed they need to now fit into any available seats on those flights. so for people scheduled to fly out tonight, tomorrow if you check your website, scheduled to go on time, check in 24 hours before your flight to secure your seat assignment, because the airline will give it away to a strnlded passenger if you don't secure it early enough. it's the passengers waiting, that will be waiting a long time.

    >> they say the airlines, ifs weather, we're not required to do anything for you, but you're talking now, some of these people could have been stuck in new york city for days on end. which if they could get an empty hotel room , it's going to cost them an arm and leg. what happens at this point?

    >> they kind of have to suck it up and pay for it. airlines are not responsible for things out of their control. if this was a mechanical delay, something wrong with the plane, yes, obligated. that's not the case. not sought say the airlines won't help these people. it's just to their discretion at this point. the best advice i can give people, don't go to the airports now. there's little you can accomplish at the airport you can't accomplish from the comfort of your home or hotel maybe.

    >> so what's the best add jis should people at this point start looking at airports around the region where they are?

    >> definitely. be as flexible as can you. scheduled to fly into new york and you're not getting to new york , no available seats, want to look at flying to philadelphia. which is having significant deep lays but maybe a possibility. boston, faa website, last 15 minutes .

    >> the train service in washington, d.c., up and running between washington and new york .

    >> exactly. some good news. amtrak this morning, reinstated some service between new york and boston. it's limited but better than yesterday. people traveling by bus around the northeast not good news. suspended service all day.

Timeline: Top travel stories of 2010

From a volcano that disrupted air travel across Europe to Steve Slater's infamous exit on a JetBlue emergency chute, here's a look at the top travel stories of the year.

Photos: The East Coast digs out

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  1. Snow covers the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 on Tuesday, Dec. 28, in New York City. Flights have slowly started to resume in New York but lines to rebook have been long. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People sleep and eat on the floor while waiting for a flight at Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A New Jersey Transit train arrives at the Princeton Junction station Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A front-end loader removes snow in New York's Times Square on Tuesday ahead of New Year festivities. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A doorman shovels a path on the east side of Manhattan on Tuesday after the blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow in the area. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dave Duncan sits in his Honda Civic, buried on the street, in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday. (Beth Defalco / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Travelers wait in ticketing lines at New York's LaGuardia airport on Tuesday. (Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Icicles melt in the afternoon sun as temperatures rise into the high 30s Tuesday in Hamilton, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. This traveler at Miami International Airport was among the many waiting Tuesday for flights after the Northeast blizzard caused backups across the country. (Jeffrey Boan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A young person sleds down a snow covered hill at Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia on Monday. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Travelers carry their luggage through a snow bank on 7th Ave. in front of Penn Station after a snow storm in New York, Dec. 27. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A windswept beach looks desolate following a snow storm on Monday in Westport, Conn. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play on a mound of snow on The Boardwalk, Dec. 27, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Gregg Smith shovels out after a heavy snowfall in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, Mass., Dec. 27. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway Monday, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays. (Bill Sikes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Alexa Canning and Talia Quinn fly through the air after hitting a jump on their sleds in Norfolk, Massachusetts. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man shovels snow on a street along the Brooklyn waterfront, Dec. 27, in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Commuters, who were trapped over night, sit on parked trains at Penn Station in New York City on Monday. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman exercises in a snow covered pasture in Durham, N.C., Monday, after a powerful East Coast blizzard that moved through Christmas day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A strong gust of wind blows snow in front of a man in Philadelphia, Monday. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A woman walks her dog between snowed-in taxicabs following a major blizzard in Manhattan's Greenwich Village on Monday in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Elena Amaral shovels steps at Trinity College during the storm in Hartford, Conn., Monday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A homeowner clears snow from the end of his driveway, Dec. 27, in Norfolk, Mass., following the blizzard which brought more than a foot of snow in the Boston area. The storm dumped snow from Atlanta, Ga. to Maine. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Michael Howard of Albany, N.Y., shovels out his vehicle on Monday. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village in the early hours of Monday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A New Jersey state trooper arrives to help after cars crash during heavy snowfall on Sunday near Columbus, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A worker clears snow from the seats at the Philadelphia Eagles stadium. (Tim Shaffer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The storm moved up from the south, where areas like Raleigh, N.C., saw snow over the weekend as well. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: US East Coast Begins To Dig Out After Large Blizzard
    Chris Hondros / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (27) The East Coast digs out
  2. Dave Granlund / Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (11) Cold Winter
  3. Cam Cardow / Ottawa Citizen, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (12) Snow Cold

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