WASHINGTON – Air travel struggled back to normal across the mid-Atlantic region of the United States Friday as airports hammered by Hurricane Isabel (search) reopened but not before hundreds of flights were canceled for a second day.
All three airports serving the nation's capital were back in operation, including Reagan National Airport (search), where earlier concerns about possible water damage to its runway lighting system had been resolved.
Amtrak's rail service on the East Coast was getting back to normal and Washington's public transport system resumed operations. Crowds were light, though, as the federal government closed for a second consecutive day.
Airlines, their business already battered this year by the Iraq war and the SARS outbreak that bruised travel demand, scurried to get airplanes back to hurricane-affected cities and move thousands of stranded passengers.
"There's a little bit of a backlog for (the airlines) to deal with," said Jonathan Gaffney, a spokesman for the authority that runs Reagan National and nearby Dulles International Airport (search).
"It wouldn't be unrealistic to expect that it could be as late as Sunday before all the passengers go to where they needed to go," he said.
Airlines canceled several hundred flights, including 200 by US Airways, 75 by AMR Corp.'s (AMR) American Airlines and another 162 by UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and partner United Express, among others.
Flights had also resumed at airports in hard-hit Richmond and Norfolk, Va., after power was restored.
Resuming service had been complicated because carriers removed aircraft from airports along the East Coast late Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the storm to prevent damage.
"The only issue this morning was because there was no equipment there (for) those first flights scheduled to take off," Southwest Airlines Inc. (LUV) spokeswoman Melanie Jones said of operations at the Baltimore/Washington International and Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina airports.
United said it would add two or three extra flights Friday between Chicago and Washington's Dulles to move stranded passengers.
Air carriers said they were still assessing the financial toll of the hurricane.
One analyst said the impact would likely be equivalent to a winter blizzard or the power blackout last month that wreaked havoc on air travel. The storm could reduce carriers' third-quarter earnings by a few cents per share, said Ray Neidl, airline analyst at Blaylock & Partners.
"There will be some additional costs with aircraft out of position, maybe some overtime, but a lot of the traffic will be recaptured," Neidl said, noting that US Airways would likely be hit hardest since its operations are concentrated on the East Coast.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (search), connecting the eastern and western shores of southern Maryland, reopened to most traffic but the bay tunnel was closed pending structural inspections, according to transportation authorities.
Amtrak said full service had resumed between Washington and New York, along its busy northeast corridor.
But the national passenger railroad was waiting for track damage reports before resuming service south to Florida, said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.
Limited service south of Washington, including the Crescent train between New York and New Orleans and an intrastate North Carolina service, was planned for Saturday, said Black. But downed trees were still preventing a resumption of service in Pennsylvania between Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.