Northeast travel slowly resumes

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, travel in the Northeast creaked back into motion on Wednesday.

It was a grinding, patchy recovery that made it clear that stranded travelers will struggle to get around for days to come.

Two of the three major airports in the New York area re-opened with limited flights. Most Northeast rail service remained suspended. In New York City, some buses were running and subway service was expected to restart Thursday.

The busy Northeast travel corridor ground to a halt when Sandy slammed into New Jersey Monday evening. Train tunnels flooded, power went out, and forecasts of high winds forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights.

FlightStats said the storm has caused more than 19,000 cancellations, including 2,820 cancellations Wednesday. The loss of East Coast flights stranded tourists in New York and kept travelers stuck in Hong Kong. The lack of trains left suburban commuters without a way into work.

On Wednesday, the first trickle of air travelers reached New York since the storm hit. John F. Kennedy International and Newark, N.J.’s Liberty Airport both opened, but flights were limited. The airlines that did operate were mostly positioning planes for a fuller schedule on Thursday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on a conference call with reporters that three runways were working at JFK, and he expected about 300 flights on Wednesday. By comparison, JFK would normally average some 1,100 arrivals and departures per day, according statistics on the airport’s website.

New York’s third major airport, LaGuardia, remained closed as officials assessed flood damage from the storm. LaGuardia has just two runways that jut out into bays and are only a few feet above sea level. They were inundated by Sandy’s huge surge. A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York &New Jersey said the assessment of the airport’s runways had not been completed.

However, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. said they plan to restart LaGuardia flights on Thursday. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said the airline intends to start landing planes around 7 a.m. and hopes to operate half of its scheduled LaGuardia flights on Thursday. Southwest plans to start flights around 1 p.m.

“There is some damage to our offices and facilities,” American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said. “It’s not pretty, but we can operate. Our employees are cleaning up for our customers.”

Airline employees will face challenges getting to work. Not only is mass transit severely restricted, but driving in will be more difficult. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that only cars with at least three passengers would be allowed to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel.

“There are a lot of contingencies before we can re-open at LaGuardia,” Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan said. “It’s still barricaded at the front entrance, which makes drop-offs from taxis and buses difficult.”

Major rail service in the region remained largely suspended. While some commuter lines were expected back Wednesday afternoon, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service between Newark, N.J., and Boston remained closed, as did the Acela Express through the Northeast corridor. No date was set for resuming service.

Amtrak restored train service to the Newark airport. But trains to and from New York’s Penn Station were still not operating because tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers were flooded.

Airlines continued to waive fees to change tickets for flights to New York airports. Delta and United said that anyone who planned to fly there through Saturday could change their ticket. However, the re-booked travel still had to begin by Nov. 9, giving travelers a relatively narrow window to make their trip.

American’s waiver was broader, covering New York tickets through Nov. 7, and allowing rebooked travel through Dec. 20.

Airports in Washington and Philadelphia re-opened on Tuesday.

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Associated Press Joan Lowy contributed to this report.

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