East Coast snow causes delays for air, ground travelers

An East Coast storm system produced only minor problems Wednesday for Thanksgiving holiday travelers, with a few cancellations and delays of flights from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Meanwhile, roads in the Carolinas were mostly dry after rain earlier in the day. And to the north, where the rain turned to snow, major highways in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were reported to be in good shape Wednesday evening.

The biggest problem for holiday travelers was finding a parking spot at Charlotte’s airport.

Airport officials warned holiday travelers to leave extra time Wednesday to get to Charlotte’s airport, on one of the busiest travel days of the year. About 26,000 people are expected to fly out of Charlotte for the holiday.

Long check-in lines were reported at the airport as early as 4:30 a.m., although passengers at 8:30 a.m. said they’d gotten through security within a half-hour. The traffic flow in and out of the airport seemed to vary during the day.

Shortly before 4:30 p.m., airport police were reporting long delays getting to the terminal and parking lots. Estimates on delays were 15 to 20 minutes at that time. But the situation had improved by 6:45 p.m., passengers said.

At 6:45 p.m., all four long term lots – along with the Daily North Lot – were full. Airport officials said the Daily, Hourly and Business Valet lots remain open.

Airport officials urge drivers to allow extra time to drive to and from the terminal. While adjusting to new traffic patterns, drive more cautiously and follow directional signs, as construction continues. Delays for cars reaching the terminal Tuesday afternoon due to traffic ranged from 20 to 40 minutes, assistant aviation director Herb Judon said.

Once travelers get to the airport, they are dealing with some flight delays.

Rain, wind and fog were causing poor visibilities at several East Coast airports. Shortly before 7 p.m., the FAA reported flight delays averaging between one and two hours at Boston, Newark, New York’s LaGuardia and Philadelphia airports.

Only a few delays were seen on the flight board at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

One flight each to Newark and LaGuardia had been cancelled, and there were delays for flights to Boston, New York’s JFK, and Charlottesville, Va. But the majority of flights were leaving on time.

Charlotte Douglas processed about 26,400 local travelers Tuesday, and a similar number are expected Wednesday. That counts passengers who leave from Charlotte and go through security.

The airport also sees about 100,000 connecting passengers each day, people who use Charlotte Douglas to change planes and don’t go through security.

Charlotte Douglas’ single-day record for local travelers was the day after the Democratic National Convention in 2012, when about 29,000 people flew out of Charlotte.

Herbert Judon, Charlotte Douglas International’s assistant director of aviation operations, said customers Tuesday were parking on the road or in construction areas, creating “de facto cell phone lots” to wait for travelers. Instead, officials are hoping that travelers will use the new hourly parking deck in front of the terminal and its 4,000 public spaces to wait. They’re also hoping that the new deck will cut down on the number of drivers circling the terminal: It’s free for the first hour, to allow people to drop off or pick up passengers more easily.

To help encourage customers to use the new hourly lot, officials said parking would be free all day Thursday there. That includes customers who have already left or are leaving their cars in the hourly deck Wednesday. The day will be credited as a free day when they check out and pay.

Interim aviation director Brent Cagle said the airport is expecting up to 800,000 people to pass through Charlotte Douglas over the week of Thanksgiving.

“That’s Charlotte. That’s our population, in one place,” said Cagle, to give perspective on how busy the airport is this week.

After Wednesday’s surge, Charlotte Douglas should be quiet Thursday and Friday. Then, traffic will pick back up, with about 27,000 local travelers expected to pass through the airport on their way home Sunday. Monday should be busy too, with more people returning home and the typical surge of weekday business travelers.

Aviation officials prepared for the possibility of widespread canceled flights Wednesday – especially at airports from Washington and Baltimore north to Boston. Road crews in areas where heavy snow is forecast to fall – the North Carolina mountains and the corridor from central Virginia to Maine – also are preparing.

“We have a lot of additional resources out,” Judon said. “You’ll see an army of traffic control officers, and a lot of people inside the terminal ready to help.”

Dina McHugh of Florence, S.C., drove to the airport Tuesday morning with family members to catch a flight to Chicago.

“It was smooth,” she said. “No problems. There was plenty of parking, everything was well-marked, and people were there to help us.”

Katie Cody, of American/US Airways, said: “We’ve done everything we can to prepare,” adding that de-icing trucks and de-icing chemicals are in good supply.

Traveling by car

AAA Carolinas estimates that 1.8 million Carolinas residents will travel 50 or more miles for Thanksgiving, and about 90 percent of those will drive. Some travel officials had encouraged people who were planning to leave Wednesday to do so Tuesday, before the storm’s arrival in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

“In most cases, the worst time to travel in the Mid-Atlantic and New England will be on Wednesday and Wednesday night,” said meteorologist Elliot Abrams of AccuWeather. He said those who didn’t leave Tuesday for destinations in those areas should consider postponing trips until Thanksgiving Day.

Road conditions shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday were reported to be good from North Carolina southward and westward. But there were problems to the north.

Traffic cameras from the Virginia Department of Transportation showed slow travel on Interstate 81, from mile marker 255 (Harrisonburg) up to the Maryland line. Traffic was averaging only 30 mph in heavy snow near mile marker 321.

Maryland transportation officials reported wrecks and slowdowns along Interstate 95, and Virginia officials said there were 15-mile traffic backups on I-95 near Fredericksburg. Virginia also reported a wreck on northbound I-77 near Wytheville (mile marker 27).

West Virginia officials reported U.S. 50 and U.S. 220 near the Maryland and Virginia lines were snow-covered and slippery.

Airport officials urged travelers to arrive early Wednesday because lines at ticket booths and security gates will be lengthy. Motorists are encouraged to pay attention to weather forecasts and road conditions.

Rain turned to snow in Boone before 8 a.m. Wednesday, and Ashe County schools closed because the weather worsened abruptly.

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