Massive Snowstorm Expected To Impact Christmas Travel Nationwide, Airlines Brace For Cancellations

Holiday travel and gift delivery could be severely disrupted by a winter storm expected to hit the center of the country from Wednesday to Sunday.

Residents of the Midwest and the Great Lakes region will contend with an incoming Arctic front causing heavy snowfall, according to a forecast from the National Weather Service. Blizzard conditions are expected to last from Thursday to Saturday, which marks Christmas Eve.

Snow is predicted to fall at a rate of one to two inches per hour at certain times, while winds could surpass 50 miles per hour, producing dangerous wind chills and low visibility. “The combination of heavy snow and strong wind gusts could lead to significant infrastructure impacts as well, including scattered tree damage and power outages,” the agency said.

The weather conditions could impact families’ holiday travel plans. Nearly 102 million Americans plan to drive to their holiday destinations, marking an increase of 2 million drivers since last year despite volatile gas prices, according to data from AAA. Meanwhile, as many as 54 million passengers will depart from airports between December 18 and January 3, constituting a 20% increase from last year, according to data from Hopper.

“If the distance is not reasonable to drive, more people are taking to the air to maximize the time spent at their destination,” AAA Senior Vice President of Travel Paula Twidale remarked. “Conversely, if the travel distances are reasonable and more than one or two people in the household are taking the trip, it may be more cost-effective to drive rather than buy multiple air tickets, rent a car, and spend too much money before the fun even begins.”

One reason for the increase in holiday travel could be the continued embrace of virtual work options by many employers. “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,” Twidale added.

Thousands of flights were canceled last Christmas as a result of COVID outbreaks among crew members. Hundreds of flights entering or leaving the United States were canceled on Christmas Day alone, while thousands of additional flights were delayed.

Carriers such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines have already posted extensive lists of cities from which they expect to travel to be disrupted this year, including Chicago, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. The companies are waiving fees for customers who rebook their flights within certain time frames.

The most popular destinations for holiday travel include New York City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Dallas, and Atlanta, according to Hopper. Domestic roundtrip airfare prices for Christmas are currently averaging $339, an 11% decrease from 2019 and a 15% decrease from 2021.

Year-over-year inflation for airline prices, however, reached 36% as of last month, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rising fuel prices and industry pressures such as pilot shortages have impacted affordability; the air travel sector will lack 12,000 pilots by next year, even as 14,000 pilots will be forced to leave the workforce over the next five years because of a federal law mandating that airline pilots retire by 65 years old, according to a study conducted by consulting group Oliver Wyman.

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