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Northeast storm serves up tricky travel weather for Thanksgiving

The Northeast was hit with a mix of rain, snow and sleet on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Many travelers tried to re-arrange travel plans, both on the road and in the air, in order to get a headstart on the storm. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Scott Mayerowitz of the Associated Press about why airlines are preemptively canceling flights.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    It would have been a tough day to travel, even without the snow and the rain and the airline cancellations. But getting to grandma's house got ugly fast today.

    Hari Sreenivasan has more.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    A messy mix of rain, snow, and sleet is set to affect more than 46 million travelers on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Flights in the Northeast Corridor from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York are all affected. And that could mean more delays elsewhere in the country.

    Airlines canceled more than 650 flights today, as the winter storm spread. And many airlines waived change fees to try to accommodate flyers scheduled to fly to several airports in the path of the storm.

    In Washington, rain turned to thick, wet snow earlier today. The Capitol was barely visible briefly amid the storm. For some travelers, that meant trying to find earlier flights.

  • WOMAN:

    I had like three hours to scramble and get here. So, it's been fun. But I think have enough time to make it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Even in the Midwest, air travel at one of the country's busiest airports, Chicago's O'Hare, could take a hit.

  • CHRIS HILLS, Air Traffic Analyst, Orbitz:

    If you're traveling to and from Chicago, you can expect some delays and cancellations because of the weather in the Northeast. There will be a ripple effect.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The mixture of rain and snow is expected to snarl travel for millions on the roadways. Here in New York, the road conditions are expected to worsen throughout the night.

    Elsewhere in the Northeast, those traveling by car tried to hit the roads early today.

  • WOMAN:

    I heard that there was snow coming in and everything so, and I'm traveling by myself with the kids and the dog, so I wanted to get a head start.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Those driving will have one thing to look forward to, the lowest gas prices in years. The national average fell to $2.81, the least expensive in nearly half-a-decade.

    For more insights on the holiday travel problems this weekend, we're joined now by Scott Mayerowitz. He's airlines reporter for the AP, joins me now.

    So, why the premature cancellations? Why are airlines cutting people out right now, instead of when they get to the airport?

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    There are several reasons the airlines have started doing this in the last two to three years.

    The first is, as a passenger, I would rather know in advance that my flight is canceled than going to the airport and sitting three, four hours as they keep delaying it, delaying it, and then finally canceling it. Also, for them, it's much better operationally. They're able to put the pilots, planes and flight attendants in position where they need to be so that when the storm clears, they can reset better.

    So there are a lot of cost-saving implications for the airlines and also a customer service implication. We don't want to have our flight canceled, but we rather know sooner than later.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And plus there's that rule this year that you can't keep people on the tarmac for an X-number of hours. What was the fine?

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    Yes, so there's this DOT tarmac delay rule. It's been in effect for a few years, but it's been — airlines have been finding new ways to avoid paying these fines, which is good for passengers.

    And for every passenger on a plane for more than three hours, an airline is actually fined $2,750. That's per passenger.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Wow.

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    So, a typical jet, that could be about $4 million.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. And this time, they're also waiving some of the rebooking fees if you were canceled today because of the storms on the East Coast.

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    Yes, during a typical week, you might have to pay to $200, plus any change in fare to move your plane.

    Here, they want to get you on earlier flights, get you away from the storms, so they're waving all these fees. The problem is, it's Thanksgiving and everybody's flying. As we all know, there are no empty seats on planes. So you can change if you can find available seats, but unfortunately for most travelers, there aren't going to be any empty seats to switch to.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And because it's Thanksgiving, it's not just another day where you can say, fine, I will take tomorrow's plane. Right? Everybody kind of planned around this, holiday vacations.

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    Yes.

    In the summer, for instance, when we have thunderstorms happen, you might be able to push your beach vacation back a day. You lose a day, it's not the end of the world. But if you're not at the Thanksgiving table for turkey or football tomorrow, you are going to be upset and you want to cancel.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How long does it take to get this sorted? What's the ripple effect? Or is this beyond just the East Coast? Do we have a domino effect in other airlines — airports, I should say?

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    This storm has been pretty bad for the Northeast, but that's about it. If you look at the rest of the country, it's been great.

    And the airlines are very particular on which planes they have been choosing to cancel. They have gone with about 80 percent of the flights canceled are their smaller regional jets that seat about 50 to 76 passengers. So it's a lot of flight cancellations, but not a giant number of passengers disrupted.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Scott Mayerowitz from the Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • SCOTT MAYEROWITZ:

    Thank you.

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