Last update: 5:35 p.m. ET. Next update: By 8:30 p.m. ET.
Airlines are already canceling flights into Saturday ahead of a new winter storm that’s forecast to bring snow and ice from the Great Plains to the Midwest and Northeast.
Adding to Friday’s flight headaches: all flights were suspended at Nebraska’s Omaha airport after a Southwest Boeing 737 slid off a runway there. Icy conditions were reported in Omaha Friday afternoon, but it was not immediately clear if that was related.
For the weather, U.S. carriers were waiving change fees for customers traveling to airports affected by the storm, which was expected to begin dumping snow in the upper Midwest and Great Plains on Friday before moving east to the Atlantic Coast this weekend. Snow totals could hit 2 feet or more in interior parts of New York state and New England.
Several major hubs lie in the storm’s path, including Chicago O’Hare, Chicago Midway and Detroit. However, the storm’s biggest impact on air travel could come Saturday and Sunday, with a mix of snow, ice, rain and wind expected to move across the airports serving New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Baltimore.
Flight delays could last even after the storm, dubbed “Winter Storm Harper” by The Weather Channel. Bitter cold is predicted to blast into the Midwest and Northeast in the storm’s wake, bringing the possibility of de-icing delays at busy airports that could last into Monday.
On Friday, flight cancellations had already begun.
More than 470 flights had been canceled nationwide on Friday and another 3,375 delayed as of 5:35 p.m. ET, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.com. Another 423 had already been grounded for Saturday.
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Southwest accounted for 137 on Friday and another 73 for Saturday, by FlightAware’s count.
“We’re making preparations to help keep people and bags moving throughout a snowy weekend in a swath of Southwest cities,” Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said to USA TODAY’s Today in the Sky blog. “That involves some strategic and proactive cancellations Friday afternoon and evening, primarily affecting travel tonight and early tomorrow morning in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Indianapolis.”
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Hawkins noted “additional cancellations (were) possible as we tactically react to evolving conditions created by the storm.”
In Omaha, 13 total flights were grounded as of 5 p.m. ET, though that number could grow depending on how quickly officials can resume flight operations there.
Flyers on all airlines should brace for a spike in cancellations and delays through Monday. Using previous storms as a yardstick, flight cancellations seem likely to push into thousands by early next week if current forecasts hold.
By early Friday afternoon, pre-emptive Saturday cancellations also showing up for airlines like United, JetBlue, Air Canada and regional carriers that operate contract flights for American, Delta and United.
Saturday cancellations had begin to pile up at other airports by Friday afternoon. Among those was Chicago O’Hare, where more than 280 combined arrivals and departures for Saturday had been axed by 4:50 p.m. ET Friday, according for about 15 percent of the entire day’s schedule there. By FlightAware’s count, many of those appeared to be on American, United and their regional affiliates.
At Chicago Midway, about 40 arrivals and departures — roughly 10 percent of Saturday’s flights — had been grounded by Friday afternoon.
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