Travelers, cargo stranded as U.S. airports, rails assess damage

Oct 30 (Reuters) - As rail, transit, airline and port workers dug through debris, dealt with power outages and assessed damage on Tuesday, one thing became increasingly clear:

Restoring transportation could take some time.

Hurricane Sandy's assault on the Eastern U.S. so brutally flooded tracks and roads, felled trees and downed power lines, it could be days or weeks before travelers and cargo are moving around normally again, officials said.

The three major New York area airports, which serve the nation's busiest airspace, remain closed Tuesday, and officials said they had no estimate for when the airports would reopen.

Nearly 16,000 flights have been canceled since Sunday as a result of the storm, including 7,791 canceled on Monday, 6,047 on Tuesday and 635 so far for Wednesday, according to flight tracking service

Airlines said they planned to restart service Tuesday at some East Coast airports, including Boston and Philadelphia. Both Dulles and Reagan National in Washington, D.C., were open during the storm and airlines are starting to bring personnel and planes back; limited operations were expected to begin Tuesday afternoon, said Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman with Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

But it was unclear whether airlines could resume flights on Wednesday to John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, which handle some 300,000 passengers a day.

``New York airports are still a question,'' JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said on Tuesday. ``We are waiting for condition reports from the Port Authority, but we are ready to deploy our plan to resume operations to JFK, LaGuardia and Newark tomorrow afternoon.''

And even if the airports reopen, travelers' itineraries are likely to be tangled throughout the week as airlines sort out getting their people, planes and passengers into position.

``If flights (in the New York area) started to resume as early as tomorrow, it could be four to five days before we start to see schedules get back to normal,'' said Jeanenne Tornatore, a senior editor with online travel agency Orbitz Worldwide. ``I think it will be into the late weekend.''

Most Amtrak service along the busy Northeast corridor remained suspended for a second day Tuesday, but officials were working to reopen service and expected to have updates later in the day.

``We have crews out there right now assessing and making necessary repairs,'' said Christina Leeds, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

United Parcel Service, the world's largest package delivery company, said it had resumed deliveries to hospitals and clinics in Manhattan and New Jersey where roads are safe.

But delivery remained halted in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. UPS is ``respecting areas where government officials only want emergency responders out in Delaware, New Jersey, Philly and parts of Maryland and Virginia,'' spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said.

In New York, workers from the Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration are assessing damage at major airports, including power issues, possible damage to structures and other safety checks, the FAA and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.

Airlines needed to bring back planes, which were flown out to avoid the storm, to resume service.

``We are focused on reopening as quickly as possible. But we will not compromise safety,'' said Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority. ``We need to walk the runways and make sure there's no debris.''

He declined to estimate when they would reopen. ``Certainly we would like to within the next few days seek to resume normal operations,'' he said. ``But a lot of things are outside our control.''

The reopening of New York's transit system will play a large role in reopening the airports, because many of the workers at security checkpoints, customs and concessions, and baggage handlers and flight crews, rely on public transportation to get to work. ``That's going to be a key part of the equation,'' DiFulco said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it could take four or five days to restore service on the city transit system, the nation's largest.

``The availability of public transportation will also play into the New York plan, too - so it remains very, very fluid,'' said JetBlue spokeswoman Steinberg.

About 220 travelers remain stranded at the airports - 100 at John F. Kennedy and 60 each at Newark Liberty and LaGuardia, DiFulco said. They were provided with cots and at least one food vendor was required to stay open 24 hours at each terminal.

``We hate to see anybody stranded,'' DiFulco said. ``We're providing cots and water and working on food vouchers. We're doing everything we can to keep people comfortable.''

Meanwhile, flights resumed Tuesday at Stewart International Airport, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, near Newburgh, New York. The first commercial flight since the storm was expected to arrive around noon Tuesday, DiFulco said.

Railway freight companies also were working to restore service. CSX Corp, the nation's second-largest publicly traded railway company, said its network remains closed from Richmond, Virginia, to Albany, New York, and that it had halted traffic originating on other lines traveling to most points between Boston and Philadelphia.

CSX said it still had a lot of its track to inspect, and that it had found flooding, downed trees and power outages along the route.

``Our engineering teams are out removing trees, making sure generators are up against power outages, and reinstalling crossing gates.

Norfolk Southern Corp said it was waiting for floodwater to subside, was clearing snow in western Virginia and West Virginia, and had a power line across tracks in Cleveland.

The Philadelphia airport did not close but Monday flights were canceled. ''We had no damage to the facility, we had no flooding so we were very fortunate,`` airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said on Tuesday.

Germany's Lufthansa has an inbound and outbound flight, and cargo carriers have resumed some operations, she said.

Delta Air Lines said it resumed flights to Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon.

Atlantic City's airport was closed except for military flights, but Spirit Airlines, the main commercial carrier there, may resume some service later on Tuesday, said Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

The area was hard hit as the hurricane came ashore Monday night. ''The water is receding but it left behind lots of debris and mud and dirt,`` he said.