Thursday, December 21, 2006 Trapped passengers settle in at airport; some reach hotels By Jeffrey Leib The Denver (CO) Post Blizzard conditions closed Denver International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, hopelessly delaying tens of thousands of holiday travelers. About 5,000 passengers were stranded at the airport Wednesday evening - many pitching camp on the rugs and stone floors of the cavernous terminal. United Airlines, DIA's largest carrier, canceled more than 670 of its 800 flights as heavy snow and high winds swept through the region, and it expected to cancel 700 flights today. Frontier Airlines canceled about 250 of its 300 flights Wednesday and expected to drop another 250 flights today. DIA isn't expected to resume flights until sometime this evening. Because so many flights are booked this time of year, travelers who were bumped may have to wait days before getting another flight out of Denver, airline officials said. About 90 percent of Frontier's flights today and Friday already were booked, leaving little wiggle room for stranded tourists, Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said. "You've got far more people looking for those seats than we have available seats," Hodas said. "We're going to try and book them as best we can. That's all we can do." Nearly all ground transportation to and from DIA stopped by midafternoon. Some travelers had waited for a taxi in blowing snow outside the terminal for three hours or more. Airport officials had requested RTD buses to help ferry people from the airport. By 7 p.m., buses began arriving to take passengers with reservations to hotels near the Stapleton area and in downtown Denver. Conditions on Peņa Boulevard were making it nearly impossible for RTD vehicles to reach DIA, officials said. Several stranded travelers expressed a feeling of resignation. Janine Sharples of Bridgeton, Maine, who was trying to get to Albuquerque, said there was little point in getting angry. "Mother Nature is in charge here," said Sharples, who, along with her husband, was diverted to Denver on Tuesday. Meanwhile, stranded travelers braced for a long night at the airport. Matt and Michelle Smith of Castle Rock had arrived early in the morning for a flight to Sacramento, Calif., with their 4-year- old daughter and 18-month-old son in tow. By midafternoon, the family was camped out at the end of the terminal, not knowing when they could get a flight. "People don't even know what to do," Michelle Smith said. Some passengers managed to fly into DIA on Wednesday morning before white-out conditions shut the airport. Many others were stuck in their aircraft for hours on the snowy tarmac because planes could not be moved The airport and Peņa Boulevard were officially shut down about 3 p.m. as the white-out conditions made it difficult for snowplow drivers to operate on runways, taxiways and Peņa. By 6 p.m., DIA officials established a baggage holding area so passengers could leave their bags in the terminal and go through security screening to reach the concourses and get food where lines were shorter. Red Cross volunteers, in turn, began distributing snacks, drinks and other amenities, as airport officials scrambled to turn the airport into a more functional, large-scale campground. About 4,200 blankets were handed out, along with 400 cots with priority given to the elderly, the disabled and families with young children. Denver Aviation Manager Turner West said airport officials would be able to accommodate the travelers facing an overnight stay. "We've got heat, water, restrooms and food," he said. For the airlines, the challenge for the coming days will be accommodating the thousands of passengers from hundreds of canceled flights. Today and Friday were expected to be the third- and fourth- busiest days in DIA history. Wednesday's passenger count was close to these levels, but nearly the whole flight schedule to and from DIA was canceled. Attached Photo: Matt and Michelle Smith of Castle Rock settle in for a long stay Wednesday at Denver International Airport. Daughter Daphne, left, 4, and son Cole, 1, keep busy. The family arrived early Wednesday for a flight to California that never left the ground.