Thanksgiving eve storm threatens travel plans

Airline officials and road crews along the East Coast ramped up preparations Monday to deal with a storm system that could threaten the Thanksgiving holiday plans of millions of travelers.

American Airlines, which operates US Airways flights since their December merger, announced it is waiving ticket change fees for passengers headed to any of 18 Mid-Atlantic or Northeast airports that could be socked with heavy snow and wind-driven rain Wednesday, on the busiest travel day of the year.

Meanwhile, officials at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and other airports across the region prepared for the likelihood of stranded passengers if the storm forces flight cancellations.

And meteorologists warned that holiday travelers whose itinerary includes Interstate 81 in Virginia and other interstates to the north should consider altering their departure plans, with snow expected to begin falling in those areas by midday Wednesday.

Even places like Charlotte, where precipitation is expected to fall as a cold rain, could be affected.

“Enough rain, low clouds and poor visibility will occur to lead to airline and highway delays ahead of the snow,” said Alex Sosnowski, senior meteorologist with Accu-Weather.

Forecasters said travelers headed west or northwest will not be affected directly by the storm.

Katie Cody, a spokeswoman for American/US Airways, said the airline is doing all it can to prepare. “We have more than 400 de-icing trucks and hundreds of thousands of gallons of de-icing fluid stationed throughout our key operational centers,” Cody said.

Meanwhile, passengers who bought tickets for flights Tuesday through Thursday to East Coast airports will be able to change the dates without a fee. AAA Carolinas expects more than 90,000 people to fly out of airports in the two states over the Thanksgiving holiday – about 30 percent of those from Charlotte.

But the possibility of heavy rain, fog and snow will also have an impact on the estimated 1.7 million Carolinas residents expected to drive 50 or more miles for the holiday. Sosnowski said I-81, a popular route to the major East Coast cities from the Carolinas, is likely to get several inches of snow. A winter storm watch is posted from central Virginia northeast across much of Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, New York and New England.

Another area of concern will be the North Carolina mountains. Forecasters said precipitation will start as rain in the high country Tuesday night but quickly change to snow, with 2 to 4 inches possible by the time it ends Wednesday afternoon.

Here is what forecasters expect for various areas from the storm:

Charlotte – A cold rain begins late Tuesday night and ends around midday Wednesday.

N.C. mountains – Rain changes to snow early Wednesday, with accumulations above 2,500 feet.

Raleigh, Norfolk, Richmond – Rain and fog Wednesday.

Roanoke, central Virginia – Rain changes to snow late Wednesday morning, with accumulations and slippery roads.

West Virginia Turnpike – Rain changes to snow, but precipitation is light with minor accumulations.

Washington, Baltimore – A rain-snow mix Wednesday changes to snow by evening, with slushy accumulations and slippery roads.

Philadelphia, New York City – Rain begins late Wednesday morning and changes to snow by evening, with several inches accumulating, especially northwest of the city.

Inland Pennsylvania and New York – Up to a foot of snow could fall in places like Scranton and Albany.