Airlines cancel flights, waive change fees from ‘Petra’

Last update: 4:30 p.m. ET. Next update: By 8 p.m. ET.

Wednesday was shaping up to be a rough day for air travel as a sprawling winter storm brought ice and snow to airports from the Great Plains into the Northeast.

Nationwide, more than 2,225 flights had been canceled and another 5.100 delayed as of 4:30 p.m. ET, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Those totals had been climbing throughout the day.  

More than 900 of those flights had been preemptively canceled by late Tuesday and nearly all big U.S. carriers were waiving change fees for airports in the storm’s path. 

The hardest-hit airports on Wednesday were the three major airports serving Washington and Baltimore, where several inches of snow were expected before a switchover to ice and – eventually – rain.

At Washington Reagan National, nearly 360 combined arrivals and departures were canceled as of 4:30 p.m. ET, accounting for more than a third of the day’s entire schedule there. A similar percentage of the day’s flights also had been canceled at both Baltimore/Washington (BWI) and Washington Dulles airports. 

USA TODAY: Huge winter storm moves east: Snow, sleet, heavy rain target 39 states

American operates a hub at Washington National while Washington Dulles is a major hub for United. Baltimore/Washington is the second-busiest base for Southwest.

Wednesday’s delays spread beyond the Washington and Baltimore area as wintry weather fell at airports from the Dakotas to the Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic.

At the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, a hub for Delta, flights were briefly halted as snow fell faster than crews could clear from runways. More than 125 flights had been canceled, affecting about 1 out of every 10 scheduled to fly there today. Of those not canceled, nearly half were delayed. Some arrivals were diverted to nearby airports such as Duluth, Minnesota, according to local media reports

“The rate of snowfall is the challenge,” airport spokesman John Welbes told The Associated Press. 

At Philadelphia, more than 15 percent of the day’s flights had been canceled.

The New York City-area’s delay-prone airport also saw problems, with about 20 percent of LaGuardia’s flights canceled and about 15 percent at Newark, New Jersey. At JFK, close to 10 percent of the day’s flights had been scrubbed.

Chicago also was another trouble spot, with about 16 percent of Wednesday’s flights canceled at Midway Airport and about 12 percent at O’Hare. 

Other airports seeing a spike in cancellations included St. Louis; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Rochester, New York; Richmond, Virginia; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin. 

USA TODAY TRAVEL: Southwest apologizes to travelers for spike in cancellations and delays, blames union

Another problem facing travelers on Wednesday was a spike in cancellations at Southwest that the carrier blamed on the mechanics’ union. Southwest and the union have been in prolonged and occasionally contentious contract talks since 2012.

“We apologize to our customers who have been inconvenienced by this disruption,” Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said late Tuesday.

The union responded quickly, accusing management of “scapegoating” mechanics.

Southwest had more than 440 cancellations on Wednesday, according to FlightAware. While many of those could be traced to airports experiencing poor weather, they remained unusually high at some airports.

Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson

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