NEW YORK — Big cot encampments and huge lines gave way to orderly, single-file queues and thawing tensions as flights left New York-area airports on time Wednesday, but clusters of tired, resigned passengers were still camped out waiting to go home.
Runways at the area's three major airports — Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark — were all open Wednesday morning, officials said, but they cautioned that it might take days for all the passengers who've been camping out to get flights.
At John F. Kennedy International Airport, there were sights not seen for days: long lists of on-time flights, fully staffed information counters, National Guard troops patrolling the terminals and workers pushing long rows of empty luggage carts — previously so scarce and coveted that screaming matches broke out over who would get them.
Video: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess (on this page)
The massive lines of recent days gave way to snaking check-in queues. Those showing up for Wednesday flights fared much better than those who had been booked on flights earlier in the week; the latter were told they couldn't travel until after the new year.
All in it together
An exhausted sense of camaraderie in the face of perceived indifference by airport officials had set in among the stranded. People shared phone chargers, made coffee runs, commiserated over convenience store meals and minded luggage during bathroom breaks.
Slideshow: The East Coast digs out (on this page)
Tommy Mokhtari, of Dubai, was desperate to leave the United States on Wednesday, as his three-month tourist visa expired on Sunday. A professional poker player, Mokhtari said he was facing expensive lawyers' fees to remedy being "out of status" as well as a $600 to $800 penalty to rebook his tickets home to Dubai.
"I waited four hours in the queue just to speak to someone," he said. "Just to get the news that I have to wait a few more days. They really need to have a backup plan. I will never ever travel again in December, never on American Airlines, and never through New York."Story: Stuck on the tarmac: Headaches begin at landing
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Most flights at New Jersey's Newark Liberty Airport were taking off and landing as scheduled Wednesday. Continental Airlines said on its website that its hub there was nearly normal but that some cancellations and delays remained.
Philadelphia International Airport reported virtually no delays, cancellations or stranded overnight passengers.
"It's looking really good here," spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said Wednesday.
'Extremely dissatisfied' mayor
In snowbound neighborhoods in New York, where hundreds of buses and dozens of ambulances got stuck in the snowdrifts, unplowed roads still hampered bus service Wednesday morning.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Wednesday he's "extremely dissatisfied" with how the city's emergency response system performed. Ambulances got stuck in the snow trying to answer emergency calls and more than 49,000 calls swamped emergency dispatch operators in one day.
The mayor said the city needs to focus on clearing unplowed streets after the storm and "we'll do the post-mortem afterwards."
Video: Politicians under fire for snow storm response (on this page)
New York's sanitation commissioner says most of the streets in the still-snowbound city will be plowed by 7 p.m., with every last one done by Thursday morning. Residential streets throughout the city remained untouched by snow plows Wednesday morning.
General delays were reported Wednesday morning at New York's Kennedy airport, where at least three airliners were stuck for more than seven hours Tuesday while they waited for an open gate.
More than 5,000 flights were canceled at the three main airports in New York — 1,000 on Tuesday alone, after the storm dumped 20 inches of snow over a 17-hour period on Sunday and Monday.Story: Your images of East Coast blizzard
'Waiting for more bad news'
As airlines struggled to catch up, they dispatched planes to Kennedy 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.
Gigi Godfrey, of Belize, spent 10 hours trapped in a Cathay Pacific plane until the flight was finally able to deplane on Tuesday.Interactive: Top travel stories of 2010 (on this page)
"It was so frustrating, just sitting there for hours, waiting for more bad news," the 24-year-old said. She was passing through New York after spending Christmas in Thailand and couldn't remember when she had first boarded a plane.
Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the planes had taken off under the assumption that it would have somewhere to go upon landing. U.S. airlines operating domestic flights are not allowed to keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours, but international flights and foreign airlines are exempt from the rule.
At JFK's Terminal 7, exhausted would-be travelers trapped in the airport for hours — or in some cases days — had removed the rope barriers from around a British Airways advertising display touting "new, "roomier business class seats" and were sleeping, stretched out or slumped over, in the model airplane seats.
In New York, service on trains plagued by snow-generated signal problems and short-circuits was improving but not back to normal days after the storm. The Long Island Rail Road, the country's largest commuter railroad, had only seven of its 11 lines running.
In snowbound New York neighborhoods, frustration was building. In an Internet video that instantly went viral, New Yorkers were shown shouting epithets at a city crew that crashed into a parked car while trying to free a construction vehicle.Video: Clean-up tow hits car (on this page)
On the other side of the Hudson River, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker personally helped some residents dig out their cars and was using Twitter to respond to others seeking help. Booker said he's "set a record for Diet Coke consumption" since Sunday night.
"I'm still getting a lot of tweets for help, so I'm going to stay with this for a while longer," he said.
In Asbury Park, N.J., a commuter train hit a tractor-trailer that got stuck at a railroad crossing. The driver had left the truck and no injuries were reported.
"At first it was somewhat exciting and pretty cool to see this much snow, being from Texas, but by the second day it became pretty frustrating," said tourist Will Robinson, 24. "The sidewalks were a mess."
Times Square was mostly cleared in preparation for Friday night's New Year's Eve celebration. Warmer and mostly sunny weather was forecast until then.
Traffic trickled over a thin layer of slush, after the so-called crossroads of the world had almost no cars on Monday when snow was piled high.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.