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Airlines play huge game of catch-up in NYC area

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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.

Meanwhile, work crews continued to struggle to free the still-snowbound city. New York's sanitation commissioner vowed that most streets would be plowed by Wednesday evening, with every last one done by Thursday morning.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the snow-removal efforts, but acknowledged that the city's usual plan for dealing with big storms failed this time. He said he was "extremely dissatisfied" with the way the city's emergency response system performed during the post-Christmas blizzard, and promised an inquiry.

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 Kennedy, 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.

Massive lines 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.

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.

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."

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 cancelations and delays remained.

Philadelphia International Airport reported virtually no delays, cancellations or stranded overnight passengers.

Many New Yorkers awoke Wednesday morning to find their blocks still untouched by a snow plow, three days after the storm. Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty confidently predicted that most streets would be clear by 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Bloomberg said things were improving. Fifty city buses were still stuck in the snow Wednesday, down from 600 a day earlier. Some 1,200 extra laborers had been hired to shovel out crosswalks and bus stops.

Bloomberg said he couldn't explain why this storm proved so tough, compared with others in the past that seemed just as severe.

"We had the same plan with the same equipment," he said. "The question is, 'Why didn't it work this time?'"

Ambulances got stuck in the snow trying to answer 911 calls and more than 49,000 calls swamped 911 operators in one day. That's the 6th busiest day in the system's history.

"It seems these calls overwhelmed the system," Bloomberg said.

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 nation's largest commuter railroad, had only seven of its 11 lines running.

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.

In hard-hit New Jersey, politicians debated the merits of a law that leaves the Senate president in charge of the state when the state's top two leaders — in this case Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — are absent. Christie is vacationing at Disney World in Florida until Thursday, Guadagno in Mexico.

Newark 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.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Chris Hawley, Meghan Barr, Samantha Gross, Sara Kugler Frazier and Dave Skretta in New York; Beth DeFalco in Asbury Park, N.J.; Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, N.J.; and David Porter in Newark, N.J.