Holiday travel: ‘Luck might have finally run out’

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(CNN) — Winter certainly is arriving with a bang in the United States. An arctic blast and bomb cyclone will push through most of the country as the season officially starts, and that’s bound to bring disruptions for millions of holiday travelers.

US air travelers had a decent run of it over the July Fourth, Labor Day and Thanksgiving holidays with largely favorable weather conditions. But it appears we’re in for a different story for Christmas.

Scott Keyes, founder of discount travel site Scott’s Cheap Flights, told CNN this week that “our luck might have finally run out.”
That huge winter storm, what the National Weather Service is calling a “once in a generation type event,” is delivering deadly cold, possible blizzards and a proverbial lump of coal in our travel stockings. And it’s all coinciding with a travel season that’s returning to crowded, nearly pre-pandemic levels.

AAA, the auto and travel membership club, expects nearly 113 million people to travel over the end-of-year holiday period.

The number of travelers expected to fly — 7.2 million — is just shy of 2019’s 7.3 million.

And when you factor in that airlines are operating fewer flights that are more crowded, there’s serious potential for a serious mess.

Travelers check in for their flights at Terminal 1 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Abbie Parr/AP

How bad could it get this week?

We can’t know for certain how big of a mess travel will be until the storm dishes out its misery, but it’s not looking good.

“We’re looking at major airports impacted by delays and cancellations including Denver, Chicago, Houston, possibly Atlanta, and later into the weekend, highly-trafficked New York area airports as weather systems move East,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and a spokesperson for flight tracking site FlightAware.

“But really, if things play out as the major weather forecasters are predicting, then hundreds of airports could be affected.”

Keep your eyes on the Midwest, particularly Chicago.

“Chicago is a major hub for American, United and Southwest, and that’s not even counting nearby Delta hubs Minneapolis and Detroit,” Keyes said.

“Flight disruptions in the Midwest have the potential to snarl not only people going to Chicago, but millions of passengers whose itineraries just had them connecting in Chicago.”

One immediate option for air travelers staring down disruptions? Change your flight.

Airlines are already out front on offering waivers on fees to switch flights, allowing people to bypass trouble spots such as Chicago — and dozens of other potentially impacted cities — without financial penalty.

The sooner the better, said Keyes, who noted that flights are more packed than they were pre-pandemic in 2019, because although travel volume is still down, the airlines have trimmed the number of flights.

Keyes said December 22 and December 23 are typically the busiest travel days leading into Christmas. This year that’s Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately, Thursday is going to be the most difficult day for travel, according to the CNN Weather team.
Travelers walk through Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Monday

Travelers walk through Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Monday

Nam Y. Huh/AP

The bedeviling nature of winter storms

Massive winter storms create all kinds of issues: dangerous cold for travelers and workers, frozen precipitation and high winds. All play havoc with getting people safely to their destinations.

“With snow events, the wind can kick up and visibility can drop for hours, even into a day or two, where airports have to close because … the visibility is too low” to land, Bangs said.

“And when it comes to ice, that’s where things grind to a halt,” Bangs said. “Most Northern-tier airports are geared up to handle snow, but there is no easy way to conquer widespread ice.”

Some of this is just out of our control.

“There’s no amount of safety protocol or preparation that airlines can take that’s going to make it safe to land or take off in the middle of a snowstorm,” Keyes said.

Airline prepare as much as they can with deicing equipment and waivers for passengers to change flights.

Remember that airline and airport workers feel the stress of these storms every bit as much as passengers. But they must put safety above expediency.

“When there are weather-related delays, know that the people who are working on the runways — handling baggage or heavy equipment — are doing so in inclement weather, and some of the jobs carry operational and safety risks,” said Gautam Thakkar, CEO of Unifi Aviation, the largest provider of aviation services in the United States.

“They have to follow precautions and guidelines, and they can’t rush what they are doing.”

What can airline passengers do to avoid a fiasco?

• Take advantage of airlines’ travel waivers to leave earlier or reroute itineraries.

Bangs said if your flight gets canceled, consider flying on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. While there are fewer flights, there are also fewer passengers.

“Scheduling the first flight of the day is a great way to avoid flight delays,” Jeff Klee, CEO of, told CNN Travel in a recent email. “Studies show that the first flights of the day are more likely to leave on time and arrive on time.”

• Leave plenty of time. “The number one thing, and I cannot stress this enough, is that you must get to the airport early and well before your flight time,” said Thakkar. “If you are traveling with a lot of luggage or packages to check in, for example, arriving two hours early may not cut it.”

• Pack light. “The best way to ensure all luggage arrives safely to a traveler’s destination is to not check a bag. Packing light and carrying on is a great way to save money and have peace of mind that your luggage will make it to your destination with you,” Klee said.

• Get your travel tools in order. The FlightAware app and airline apps will deliver alerts directly to your phone.

If your flight is delayed or canceled, Keyes recommends calling an airline’s international offices rather than competing with the scores of other passenger using their domestic lines.

He also encourages travelers to inquire about interline agreements between airlines. Your airline might be able to get you to your destination by putting you on another carrier.

A few silver linings

The next few days look daunting, but there are a few things going for air travelers this week.

Bangs points out US air carriers are more fully staffed than they were last year at this time, even though there’s a loss in experience level.

Industry group Airlines for America said in a recent media briefing that the industry is adding around 4,600 employees a month. Airlines have ramped up hiring, reduced capacity and built in reserves and buffers to improve performance, the organization said.

And while the flu, RSV and Covid are proving to be a respiratory triple threat, they don’t seem to be creating the havoc with employees that the Omicron strain of Covid did last year around Christmas, Bangs said.

Finally, the timing of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day could help.

“This year, travel time will be extended due to Christmas Day and New Year’s Day falling on Sundays,” said Paula Twidale, AAA’s senior vice president of travel, in a statement.

“With hybrid work schedules, we are seeing more people take long weekends to travel because they can work remotely at their destination and be more flexible with the days they depart and return.”

With a longer calendar to play with, passengers will have more options when it comes to finding new flights. And with the winter weather the United States is expecting, that flexibility may be especially important this holiday season.

Top image: Workers deice an Alaska Airlines plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday, December 20. Much of the rest of the United States will see severe weather in the coming days.


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