Airline Nightmare: Which Flight Will Take Off First?

VIDEO: Blizzard causes airport delays and harsh conditions on the ground.
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Will your flight be the first to leave once airports in the Northeast reopen after this weekend's debilitating blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded at airports? Or will you be stuck behind a long line of flights trying to take to the skies?

When the runways reopen -- an event scheduled for late Monday afternoon -- the hundreds of canceled flights will take off in an order that is part complex formula set by the airlines and part luck of the draw.

It's is a bit of a free for all, but the airlines that have planes at the airport, fueled, de-iced and full of passengers will get the first slots.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles all traffic in and out of the nation's airports but doesn't get to favor one flight over another. It's first come, first serve, explained Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

Pilots will file flight plans as they are ready for departure. The local ground controller then gets a request from the pilot for clearance -- essentially a request to taxi and take off. Takemoto said the request is what earns the flight a spot in the queue. The only reason the FAA would deviate from that order is if planes needed to maneuver around snowbanks, or if there were some other problem on the taxiways.

The hardest hit airports are New York's big three. Flights at LaGuardia resumed around 4 p.m. today, with JFK and Newark Liberty re-opening at 7 p.m., according to the FAA's flight delay website.

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The airlines have their own set of rules to determine which flights they board first. The first -- and most important determining factor -- is which aircraft do they have available. They then try to stick to the normal flight schedule as much as possible.

"So, if Philadelphia airport reopens at 8 a.m., we usually resume operations with the closest departure after 8 a.m.," US Airways spokesman Derek Hanna told ABC News.

Flying to a Hub Might Get You Home Faster

There might be a few other factors at play, including whether destination airports are open, and priority might be given to flights headed to an airline's hub.

"They want to get their hubs in operation for people with connections," said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com.

At New York's three main airports -- LaGuardia, JFK, Newark Liberty International -- hundreds of passengers were stranded overnight and given blankets and cots but not their checked luggage.

Jason Cochran, of Manhattan, told The Associated Press that vendors were running out of food, and he posted a tweet that said he'd waited in line for more than an hour at KFC.

Once planes do start moving, there is the question of which passengers get on those first flights out. For those who have been trapped for days, the answer isn't one they're likely going to want to hear.

Let's say the first flight to Detroit from New York on a particular airline is at 8 p.m. Monday night. The passengers who were originally scheduled for that Monday night flight get to keep their seats. Those on flights Saturday or Sunday or even Monday morning who have been waiting at the airport will have to wait even longer. If there are any empty seats on that flight, the airline will dole out those seats via a series of criteria.

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