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Winter Storm Disrupts Thousands of Flights on a Busy Holiday Travel Day

Travelers across the United States were split into two groups on Friday: those caught in logistical turmoil caused by the “bomb cyclone,” and those being spared, at least for the moment.

A total of 5,100 flights within, into, or out of the country were canceled and 8,400 others were delayed on Friday, disrupting holiday travel plans for thousands of travelers, according to Flight Aware, a flight tracking service.

Major airports in Cleveland, Buffalo and Chicago reported by Friday morning that more than half of their departing flights were canceled, Flight Aware showed. Freezing rain led to the closure of all runways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, scrambling holiday travel plans for thousands of people.

Some carriers, including Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air, canceled more than one-third of their flights on Friday. More than 400 Southwest Airlines flights were delayed. The Canadian low-cost carrier WestJet and its subsidiary Swoop reported the highest proportions of cancellations: 48 percent and 81 percent, respectively.

But airport hubs in Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles were seeing only 5 to 6 percent of departures canceled as of Friday afternoon.

“Feels like pretty normal travel for me,” said Caroline Neary, a Ph.D. student who was flying home for Christmas on Friday, from Houston to West Palm Beach, Fla., by way of Atlanta. “I was worried about the ripple effects from storms elsewhere, but I haven’t seen any cancellations or major delays in my trip.”

The wave of colder weather had arrived in New York by Friday afternoon with temperatures falling below freezing, preceded by gusty winds. The cold was expected to reach Miami by Saturday morning, leaving many travelers bracing for the worst.

The weather disruptions are striking just as travel volume has been approaching prepandemic levels. In mid-December, AAA predicted that nearly 7.2 million Americans would fly between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, and that another 102 million would drive at least 50 miles for the holidays.

The expected surge in travel for the holiday season contributed to the stress, with travelers complaining on social media about long lines at airport check-in counters and delays on the tarmac. By late Friday morning, disruptions elsewhere in the country had begun to affect places that had been spared so far, including San Diego and Houston.

The headaches for travelers in the Northeast had already begun by Friday morning, before the storm hit the region. Logan Airport in Boston reported that 25 percent of its outbound flights were canceled, and La Guardia Airport was seeing one-third of departures scratched. In Buffalo, almost four-fifths of scheduled arrivals had been canceled.

“The whole system feels it when you have one or two major hubs impacted,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Friday morning. “Right now we have multiple major airline hubs impacted.”

Many departing flights were canceled not because of bad conditions at that airport, but because poor weather elsewhere delayed or disrupted an earlier arriving flight, leaving no airplane available where it would be needed.

Major U.S. airlines, including American, Delta and United, said they were waiving change fees for some travelers affected by the severe weather.

Ice and snow were hampering travel on the ground as well as in the air. Amtrak announced on Wednesday that it was canceling trains on its Midwest routes, including those between Chicago and Michigan, through the weekend, out of “an abundance of caution.” On Friday, it added several Vermont routes to the list.

In Seattle, King County Metro suspended all bus service Friday morning, citing “deteriorating and unsafe road conditions.” Bus fares were being waived on Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Power outages across the country left more than a million customers without electricity and posed additional dangers and delays for drivers.

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