Airlines already canceling Friday flights as winter storm snarls Christmas travel

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A “once in a generation” storm is complicating the travel plans for millions of Americans this holiday season as cold temperatures, frigid winds and heavy snow sweep over 17 states.

This holiday travel season is slated to be the busiest for airlines since the pandemic began, but the storm is now threatening the travel plans of tens of thousands of flyers. Cancellations and delays are soaring Thursday as both airlines and airports try to grapple with the wintry weather.

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, 3,716 flights had been delayed and 1,835 had been canceled, according to FlightAware, a site that tracks flight data. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and Denver International Airport (DEN) led with the most cancellations and delays, but disruptions piled up at airports across large swaths of the U.S.

Nearly 1,000 flights had already been canceled for Friday as U.S. carriers preemptively pared back schedules in anticipation of the storm.

The National Weather Service had already advised travelers – especially those traveling by car – to shift plans away from the storm, which the agency described as an “arctic blast of dangerous and life-threatening cold.” The storm had already affected the Great Plains Thursday morning and is expected to move toward the Midwest, South and East Coast between Thursday and Friday. Nearly 100 million Americans are under winter storm advisories.

Many major airlines — including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines — have been offering waivers that, generally speaking, allow customers to make one change to their itineraries without paying change fees or a recalculated fare. Dates and airports covered by the waivers varied by carrier, but airlines are attempting to let customers rebook flights to fly either before or after the storm.

Before the storm, Airlines for America — a trade group representing the largest airlines in the U.S., including American, Delta and United — said it was prepared to handle travel between Christmas and New Year’s.

Sharon Pinkerton, the senior vice president for policy at A4A, reiterated that hiring more staff and adjusting schedules had largely fixed the operational issues that had plagued airlines for the past year.

The Transportation Security Administration also said it was prepared for a holiday travel surge. TSA administrator David Pekoske added that the organization would strive for wait times of 30 minutes or less at security checkpoints in airports across the country.

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