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United resuming flights in Houston, but getting back to normal could take weeks

Airlines are working to resume flights out of storm-battered Houston as passengers nationwide head to the airport for Labor Day weekend.

Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport reopened Wednesday afternoon but fielded just a handful of arrivals and departures.

Getting back to normal operations in Houston, struck by devastating floods in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, will take weeks for Chicago-based United Airlines, said airline spokesman Charlie Hobart.

A typical day would see 480 departures from Houston, United's second-largest hub. On Thursday, 27 United flights were expected to depart from Houston, Hobart said.

United expects to restart regional flights out of Houston on Friday. "Right now we're focused on building our schedule, connecting the right crews and equipment to whatever flights we can operate," he said.

Friday is expected to be the biggest travel day of the Labor Day weekend, according to industry group Airlines for America. U.S. airlines are expected to carry an estimated 16.1 million passengers worldwide between Aug. 30 and Sep. 5.

The trade group released those estimates before Harvey struck Houston. While passengers trying to get in and out of Houston will continue to deal with cancellations, Hobart said United doesn't expect the disruption in Houston to have a significant effect on the rest of its system over the holiday travel period.

United is still encouraging passengers flying to or through Houston and nearby airports to consider travel waivers, and encouraging customers elsewhere to arrive early.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which don't have hubs in Houston and operate fewer flights through the city, also said they didn't expect lingering disruptions in Houston to affect overall holiday weekend travel.

Delta canceled about seven flights at Bush Airport and two at Hobby on Thursday, out of about 30 and seven departures, respectively, on a typical day, said spokesman Michael Thomas. The airline expects to get back to its regular schedule relatively quickly, he said.

Southwest Airlines is waiting until Saturday afternoon to restart Houston flights. The airline canceled about 2,000 flights.

Last week, United began shifting crews and aircraft to other airports and added a few extra flights at some hubs to accommodate customers who had planned to connect through Houston, Hobart said.

Travel waivers, which let customers switch to a different flight with no added fee in advance of events like Hurricane Harvey, helped minimize the number of people stranded in Houston or in need of last-minute rebooking, Hobart said.

A recent change in how United schedules its aircraft also helped limit Houston's impact on the rest of the airline's flights. An airplane flying from Houston to Chicago turns around and flies back to Houston, rather than continuing on to a new destination. That helps keep cancellations at one airport from rippling throughout the airline's network.

Even if airlines say the storm won't throw off holiday travel plans for passengers steering clear of the region, it could take a toll on the airlines' finances, particularly at United, said analyst Helane Becker of Cowen and Co.

Becker estimated United could take at least a $265 million financial hit, with little opportunity to recover lost sales, she said in a Tuesday report.

lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @laurenzumbach

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