Storm adds uncertainty to strong holiday travel demand

Worries about illness or inflation aren’t stopping Americans from hitting the roads and airports this holiday season. But a huge winter storm could do it.

Forecasters are predicting 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 breath of arctic air will follow. Christmas weekend could be the coldest in decades.

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

Southwest Airlines said it canceled 500 of its 4,000 scheduled flights Thursday and Friday. The company said it wanted to maintain safe operations for 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 scheduled 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 snow removal equipment and 400,000 gallons of de-icing fluid for the storm.

Delta, American, United, Frontier, Alaska, Southwest and other airlines were waiving change fees and giving travelers the flexibility to choose new flights to avoid bad weather.

Travelers check in for their flights at kiosks and line up to check their bags in Terminal 1 at Minneapolis St. Paul Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Jean-Paul Blancq arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport a day early for his flight home Thursday 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 won’t be canceled because I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Blancq said.

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

“I try to get out of this time. I would have stayed longer but I just can’t take that risk,” she said as she drove through LaGuardia Airport.

Bus and train travelers were also bracing for cancellations and delays.

As of Wednesday evening, Amtrak had canceled train service on about 30 routes, some until Dec. 25. Greyhound canceled bus service on 25 routes for Wednesday and Thursday, including service from Las Vegas to Denver, Denver to St. Louis and Chicago to Minneapolis. , 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 walk 80 km or more between December 23 and January 2. This is 4% more than last year, although still below the record of 119 million in 2019.

Most planned to travel by car. About 6% will travel by air, AAA said. Either way, many travelers found themselves changing their itinerary in a hurry.

Cars line up to pick up travelers at Love Field Airport in Dallas, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Cars line up to pick up travelers at Love Field Airport in Dallas, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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 leave on Wednesday and ride out the storm.

In Montana, several ski areas announced closures Wednesday and Thursday due to extremely cold temperatures and sustained winds. Others have reduced their offers. Schools were also closed due to the cold.

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

“If you don’t have to drive, especially on Fridays, we ask you not to be there,” said Ron Brundidge, Detroit’s director of public works. Brundidge said 50 trucks will be grouting major roads around the clock once forecast rain turns to snow on Friday.

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

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

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

Crews de-ice a Southwest Airlines plane before takeoff Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. An impending winter storm threatens the Christmas travel rush. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)
Crews de-ice a Southwest Airlines plane before takeoff Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. An impending winter storm threatens the Christmas travel rush. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

Ebenhoch stressed that passengers have the right to ask the airline to rebook them on another airline’s flight 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 urge to travel and visit family and friends during the holidays seemed to outweigh concerns about illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said coronavirus cases and deaths have increased in recent weeks, and the trio of COVID-19, seasonal flu and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, continues to stress the system. health.

Inflation also does not appear to be reducing demand for holiday travel. The average round-trip airfare rose 22% to $397 in the second quarter of this year – the most recent period available – according to US government data. That was higher than headline price inflation in the United States, which peaked at 9% in June.

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

In a recent survey, Morning Consult found that 28% of US travelers are planning a day trip for vacation, up from 14% last year. There has also been an increase in the number of people planning to stay with friends or family rather than hotels. Roeschke thinks higher prices were a factor.

Associated Press photographer Julie Nikhinson in New York and Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Corey Williams in Detroit, Julie Walker in New York, Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana and Amancai Biraben in Los Angeles contributed .


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