Powerful winter storm could cause disruption to US holiday travel

Worries about disease or inflation are not stopping the Americans from hitting the streets and airports this holiday season. But a huge winter storm could.

Predictors predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and strong winds Thursday through Saturday across a wide swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. A wave of arctic air will follow. The Christmas weekend could be the coldest in decades.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday that the storm was so large and contained that about 190 million people are currently under some type of winter weather warning.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, a a new record was set when the temperature dropped 40 degrees in just 30 minutes, according to the weather service.

Cities in Minnesota, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul, have declared snow emergencies. On the East Coast, an NHL game between the Buffalo Sabers and Tampa Bay Lightning that was scheduled for the New York team’s Keybank Center on Dec. 23 postponed.

Southwest Airlines said it canceled 500 of its 4,000 scheduled flights on Thursday and Friday. The company said it wanted to maintain safe operations for both passengers and crew.

At least 145 flights to or from Denver International Airport were canceled Wednesday as the city was hit by snow, gusty winds and freezing temperatures, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. At least 219 flights to or from Denver were expected to be canceled Thursday.

FlightAware also expected at least 364 flights to be canceled Thursday at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. Earlier this week, those two airports said they had 350 pieces of snow removal equipment and 400,000 gallons of deicing fluid on hand for the storm.

Delta, American, United, Frontier, Alaska, Southwest and other airlines change fees waived and offer travelers the ability to choose new flights to avoid bad weather.

Rattling Winter Storm Busy US travel season with cold and snow
A worker stands next to Alaska Airlines planes during a snowstorm at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington on December 20, 2022.

David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Jean-Paul Blancq arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport a day early for his Thursday flight home to New Orleans. Blancq had to take a bus to Logan from his seasonal job in New Hampshire and was unsure of the storm’s path.

“I hope my flight doesn’t get canceled because I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Blancq said.

Bianca Thrasher-Starobin, a consultant and lobbyist in Atlanta, flew into New York Wednesday morning for an event and planned to fly out that evening.

“I’m trying to get out of this weather. I would have stayed longer, but I can’t take that chance,” he said as he ran into LaGuardia Airport.

Bus and train travelers are also preparing for cancellations and delays.


Freezing after rain, snow is expected to affect travel

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As of late Wednesday, Amtrak had canceled train service on about 30 routes, some through Dec. 25. , Memphis and Nashville.

The weather added uncertainty to what was expected to be a busy travel season. Earlier this month, AAA estimated that nearly 113 million people would travel 50 miles from home or more between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2. That’s up 4% from last year, though still short of 2019’s record 119 million.

Most planned to travel by car. About 6% will travel by air, AAA said. Either way, many travelers found themselves hastily changing their itineraries.

Joel Luster originally planned to drive from Bloomington, Indiana to McGregor, Iowa on Thursday. But he changed his work schedule and his wife canceled an appointment so they could go out on Wednesday and beat out the storm.

In Montana, many ski areas announced closures Wednesday and Thursday due to extremely cold temperatures and sustained winds. Others lowered their bids. Schools are also closed due to the cold.

Authorities across the country are concerned about the possibility of power outages and have warned people to take precautions to protect the elderly, the homeless and animals – and, if possible, to postpone travel.

“If you don’t need to be out driving, especially on a Friday, we ask you not to be out there,” said Ron Branditz, Detroit’s director of public works. Branditz said 50 trucks will be putting salt out on major roads in 24-hour shifts when the expected rain turns to snow on Friday.

Kelli Larkin arrived Wednesday from Florida for a vacation trip to New York. She plans to fly back Saturday night, but said she will monitor the forecast and change her return flight if necessary.

“It’s a little worrying,” he said. “We have to play it by ear.”

Kurt Ebenhoch, a consumer travel advocate and former airline executive, said fee waivers give airline passengers valuable time before a storm to find alternative days and routes. But consumers should read the fine print carefully. Airlines may charge the difference in fares if passengers book beyond a certain window, for example.

Ebenhoch emphasized that passengers have the right to ask the airline to rebook them on a different airline if there are no options that meet their needs. And if the airline cancels the flight, consumers are entitled to a full refund, not just credits for future travel.

The desire to travel and visit family and friends during the holidays appeared to outweigh concerns about illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cases and deaths from the coronavirus have increased in recent weeks, and the triad of COVID-19, seasonal flu and the respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, continues to stress the health care system.

Inflation also did not appear to reduce demand for holiday travel. The average round-trip airline ticket rose 22 percent to $397 in the second quarter of this year – the most recent period available – according to US government data. That was higher than overall US price inflation, which peaked at 9% in June.

Lindsey Roeschke, travel and hospitality analyst at Morning Consult, a market research firm, said travelers appear to be limited in other ways.

In a recent survey, Morning Consult found that 28 percent of U.S. travelers were planning a day trip for the holidays, up from 14 percent last year. There was also an increase in the number of people planning to stay with friends or family instead of hotels. Roeschke believes higher prices were a factor.

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