Airlines waive fees as storm threatens Christmas travel

5:09 PM, Dec 19, 2012   |    comments
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by Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY

Air travelers getting an early start on Christmas travel could run into turbulence thanks to a major winter storm that is expected to affect several of the USA's busiest air hubs during the next 72 hours.

The storm, developing now east of the Rockies, has spawned blizzard warnings for at least a half-dozen states and is forecast to bring blustery weather to the Northeast by the weekend.

Most of the nation's big airlines responded to the storm's threat by Wednesday afternoon, enacting flexible rebooking policies for fliers scheduled to fly into the storm's path.

Denver is suffering flight delays this afternoon (Wednesday) as a result of the storm. Flights at the airport - a major base for three big airlines (United, Frontier and Southwest) - were being delayed by an average of about 70 minutes as of 3:30 p.m. ET (1:30 p.m. MT) because of "snow-ice," according to the Federal Aviation Administration's airport delay map.

Snow and wind are expected to continue in the Denver area through early afternoon today (Wednesday), which could create minor to moderate delays into the evening.

However, worse flight delays are expected to develop as the storm intensifies and moves to the east.

Next in the storm's path: parts of the upper Midwest, where blizzard conditions could disrupt flights today at small and mid-sized airports, such as Omaha and Des Moines.

By Thursday, Chicago and its busy O'Hare and Midway airports are predicted to feel the storm's effects. Only a few inches of snow are forecast for the Chicago region, but a bigger concern looms in the expected reduced visibility and strong winds forecast to accompany the precipitation.

O'Hare is a major hub for both American and United while Midway is one of the top bases for Southwest. If the forecasts hold, both airports are at risk of having significant delays developing Thursday and lasting into Friday.

Blizzard conditions also could snarl flights in Wisconsin on Thursday, possibly affecting Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.

Detroit, one of Delta's busiest hubs, is expected to see rainy, windy conditions starting Thursday, but the biggest threat to that airport comes Friday. That's when the precipitation is forecast to switch to snow, though accumulations are expected to be modest. Detroit's airport typically handles winter weather well, but travelers flying to, from or through the city should monitor conditions and check ahead on the status of their flights.

Similar advice applies to fliers passing through Cleveland, a busy hub for United, which faces a similar forecast for Friday.

With the edge of the storm forecast to move into the Northeast by Friday, the main concern for air travelers will turn to New York. Snow is not yet in the forecast there, but the predicted gusty winds, clouds and occasional rain are a bad mix for the metro area's delay-prone LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports. Forecast winds also would bring the risk of sporadic delays at those airports on Saturday.

Even ahead of the storm's arrival, the FAA reported Newark and JFK flights were being delayed by an average of about 35 to 55 minutes as of 3:30 p.m. ET this afternoon because of winds gusting up to 25 mph. Winds also could disrupt flights Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia, though any problems that develop there are likely to be more sporadic in nature.

And, in Atlanta, travelers flying through the world's busiest airport on Thursday should pay attention to a line of thunderstorms that are expected to develop ahead of the winter storm as it moves East.

The greatest risk from those storms is expected to come early to mid-day Thursday. However, the delay threat depends on whether the storms develop into a north-south "line" long and solid enough to block flight paths west of Atlanta.

As always, customers flying over the busy Christmas holiday travel period should check ahead on the status of their flight, and keep in mind that fair skies at their destination don't mean that they're immune from weather delays. For example, a flight from St. Louis to Houston could become delayed or canceled if the aircraft or crews scheduled to operate the flight gets stuck in snowy Wisconsin.

Stay tuned for updates ...

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