As holiday travelers packed airports across the country, a “once in a generation” winter storm sent powerful winds and sub-freezing temperatures through the Northeast and Midwest on Thursday, unleashing a cascade of flight cancellations, including disruptions at all three Bay Area airports.
And it’s only just beginning.
Frigid temperatures and severe storms blanketed Chicago, Denver and Buffalo, N.Y., and air travelers were bearing the brunt. As of Thursday afternoon, over 2,300 flights within, into or out of the United States had been canceled, and another 2,058 flights were preemptively axed for Friday. U.S. flight cancellations average around 200 to 400 trips on a typical travel day.
In Denver, temperatures briefly dropped to minus 24 degrees — their coldest level since 1990. Buffalo saw 65 mph winds whip through the city, and relentless winds in South Dakota created snow drifts of 10 feet in some places.
“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid,” President Joe Biden warned Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. “This is serious stuff.”
Fortunately for the Bay Area, the weather patterns have shielded much of California from the storm. The region’s major airports — San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland — have also skirted severe delays seen outside California. But many travelers still faced uncertainty and delays from around four dozen canceled flights and additional delays hitting SFO, OAK and SJC on Thursday.
Matt McPhail was flying home from San Francisco to Connecticut on Thursday evening with a “sketchy” connection in Las Vegas. “If our plane gets delayed, we are for sure flying the next morning,” he said. But McPhail was ready to turn any winter travel mayhem into a mini-holiday. “Frankly, there are worse places to be stranded than Vegas.”
The bulk of the air travel havoc is emanating from Denver, where blistering winds are coursing across the city, and Chicago, where whiteout conditions developed amid heavy snowfall. Travelers heading to New York and Washington, D.C., should also expect major delays.
How much did the temperature change in an hour or less as the cold front passed? Here is a graphical depiction using the real-time mesoscale analysis grids. The grid showed max drop was near -47 degrees in NE Colorado. Included is the actual record drop trace at Cheyenne, WY. pic.twitter.com/ct47GE2ppo
— NWS Weather Prediction Center (@NWSWPC) December 22, 2022
Even warm-weather seekers heading to Miami should brace for delays.
Doug Yakel, a San Francisco International Airport spokesperson, said SFO, which only had 22 cancellations by Thursday evening, will likely see more in the coming days.
Yakel’s advice for travelers heading into the eye of the winter storm: Book a new flight.
Many airlines are waiving change fees and allowing travelers to choose routes that avoid bad weather.
“I know a lot of people want to get there by Friday or Saturday,” said Yakel. “But if there is flexibility. See if your airlines allow (changes) without financial penalty and take advantage.”
Among the airlines offering free flight rebookings: Delta, American, United, Frontier, Alaska and Southwest.
Kaley Skantz, an Oakland Airport spokeswoman, said the “absolute best advice” is to download your airline’s mobile app to ensure you are receiving real-time notifications on your flight.
The storm, called a “bomb cyclone” because of its explosive power, has put about 135 million people under wind-chill advisories, with temperatures in Denver International Airport dropping by 30 degrees in 15 minutes at one point. In Chicago, temperatures dropped to minus-8 degrees and minus-4 in St. Louis.
“Wind chills of this magnitude can cause frostbite in less than 5 minutes if precautions are not taken, with hypothermia and death also possible from prolonged exposure to the cold,” the National Weather Service office in Maryland said in its Thursday forecast.
⬇DIA briefly dropped to -24F this morning, just shy of meeting the monthly record set in 1990. With temperatures recently trending “warmer”, there’s a good chance this will be the final low temperature. 🥶#COwx https://t.co/2LFHhwoOa0
— NWS Boulder (@NWSBoulder) December 22, 2022
Forecasters predict an onslaught of heavy snow, ice, flooding and powerful winds through Saturday in a broad swath of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. A surge of Arctic air will follow. In many areas the Christmas weekend could be the coldest in decades.
The weather added uncertainty to what was expected to be a busy travel season. Earlier this month, AAA estimated that nearly 113 million people would travel 50 miles from home or more between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2. That’s 4% higher than last year, although still short of the record 119 million in 2019.
The good news for travelers bound for the Bay Area this Christmas — or people staying put — is temperatures are expected to hit the low-to-mid 60s throughout weekend, including Christmas Day. While the rest of the country is pounded by snow, the sunny Bay Area will not see rain until Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.