From Philadelphia to Cincinnati, thousands of holiday travelers spent much of their Christmas weekend sleeping in airport terminals and rearranging flight schedules because of a confluence of poor weather, labor unrest and computer meltdowns.
The problems began on Wednesday and Thursday, when a winter storm buffeted the middle swath of the country, and continued through Saturday.
Travelers using US Airways, the financially beleaguered carrier, were perhaps the most affected. The airline canceled 65 flights on Thursday, 176 on Friday and 143 on Saturday. The airline said that flight attendants across its network and baggage carriers in Philadelphia had called in sick in unusually high numbers, but union representatives for both sets of workers denied there was any job action authorized.
On Saturday, the travel plans of 30,000 passengers in 119 cities were disrupted when Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, canceled all of its 1,100 flights after its computer system crashed.
In Philadelphia, the problems, including a pileup of an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 luggage items, were so severe that the US transportation secretary personally intervened.
The secretary, Norman Mineta, was on the telephone with his aides "well into the midnight hours" as he tried to get an account of the problems at US Airways, said a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
"The secretary was quite concerned last night when he saw that the Philadelphia airport had turned into a huge hotel for people who were stranded by the thousands there, and at other airports in the Northeast, because of problems with baggage handling and getting flights moving," the spokesman, Robert Johnson, said Saturday.
Johnson added, "We will, as the week unfolds, press for answers as to what really went on here."
Travelers said they were awestruck by the chaotic situation at the airport.
"Even post-9/11 I've never seen it this bad," said Rodney Gibson IV, 29, a graduate business student at the University of Pennsylvania. "I've never seen anything like it before."
Gibson, who took a Northwest Airlines flight from Philadelphia to San Jose, California, on Friday morning, said the lines around the airport seemed interminable.
"The line went out the doors," he said in a telephone interview. "It did the whole accordion deal, zigzagging the normal way, and then out the door and onto the sidewalks."
Several of the airport's terminals resembled barracks as entire families installed themselves for overnight stays. Airport workers handed out coffee, hot chocolate, water, snacks, pillows and blankets, said Mark Pesce, a spokesman for the city-owned airport. Workers at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott, whose 414 rooms quickly filled, distributed free toothbrushes, razors and toiletries to waylaid travelers, said a spokeswoman for the hotel chain, Laurie Goldstein.