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Bad weather + hordes of passengers = Messy Thanksgiving travel

Posted at 6:40 AM, Nov 27, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-27 07:36:12-05

(CNN) -- The phrase "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" has been married to Thanksgiving, ever since the 1980s comedy locked two oddball characters onto a holiday travel merry-go-round.

In the movie, a blizzard diverts a plane carrying characters played by Steve Martin and John Candy, forcing them for three long days to find their way to Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago -- by train, bus and rental car.

It reflects a holiday tradition, when bad weather and hordes of travelers team up to send the country's transportation capacities reeling.

It's whirling again this Thanksgiving, with 43 million Americans en route. And though it might not be too bad this year, a messy storm is soaking, slushing and snowing up the eastern United States and causing flight delays.


The storm bumped more than 6,000 flights off schedule and forced 271 cancellations Tuesday. Early Wednesday morning, 95 flight cancellations remained.

That has made for some inconvenience but not exactly chaos -- so far.

"I was very happy I booked the day I did," said passenger Harold Rothman. "Because if I booked tomorrow, I'd probably be delayed."

Late Tuesday, groups of planes, unable to land at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International because of weather delays, circled in wait of a free runway.

With 678 airborne latecomers, the country's busiest airport had the biggest slowdown. On average, passengers had to add almost an hour.

A low-hanging blanket of clouds along with rapidly shifting winds were all it took to throw a wrench.

New York and Washington had pesky delays Tuesday. But the really wintry weather was headed their way early Wednesday. It will be a strong storm, possibly a Nor'easter, with driving, cold, wet winds.

"Let's face it: With 80% of our airplanes touching the congested Northeast, we're acutely aware that things can go wrong relatively quickly," said JetBlue COO Rob Maruster to CNN Affiliate WCBS.

If flight delays and cancellations pile up, it could cause a chain reaction throughout the country, as connecting flights outside the Northeast wait for arrivals coming from the stormy region.


Going to the Northeast and want to avoid the mess? Take the train. Amtrak has reported no delays so far.

Using the weather as a marketing tool, the nation's rail system is running a Thanksgiving special and adding seats on some routes.

"Rail travel remains one of the most reliable and comfortable transportation options, especially in weather conditions that negatively impact other modes," Amtrak said.

There may be something to that.

"QUIET CAR. Window seat. Polite seatmate. I have hit the Amtrak travel trifecta. #blessed," tweeted Ellie Hall early Wednesday morning.


Road conditions probably won't be great, if you're driving into one of the coastal metropolises in the Northeast.

The abominable snowman shouldn't make it into town, but he was already messing up the areas just to the west of them late Tuesday.

"It's sleet; it's rain; it's 31 degrees. It's ugly out there," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

He expected large parts of Pennsylvania and beyond to freeze up early Wednesday. That should make for dangerous road conditions.

Last week, 12 people died, mostly in car crashes, when one of the fronts making up the current storm iced up roads from the Rockies to Texas and Oklahoma. Over 100 vehicles ended up in wrecks.

"I get on the highway and the next thing I know I'm spinning," said Seqret Watson, among the dozens of drivers in northwest Arkansas sent sliding when their cars hit icy bridges and roads.

"I try to grab my wheel and then I just hit the wall. Just jumped out to make sure my kids were okay," Watson told affiliate KFSM.

The Peterson famly planned on driving from Northern Virginia to Massachusetts. But after seeing the forecast, they changed their minds. They got a last-minute flight instead.

"It was a small fortune," Jennifer Peterson told CNN affiliate WUSA. "We could've gone to the Bahamas for what we paid!"

CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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