The 112.7 million Americans that AAA forecasted would travel last week for Christmas undoubtedly was diminished by another forecast — the weather forecast — as a winter storm rolled in Friday, impacting about 60 percent of the U.S. population.
AAA’s original prediction of Americans who would travel 50 miles or more away from home between Friday and Jan. 2 called for an increase of 3.6 million people over last year’s holiday season, which would have made it the Christmas holiday with the third-highest travel since AAA began tracking in 2000.
About 7.2 million people were expected to fly — but Friday’s winter blast led to the cancellation of more than 4,600 flights into or out of airports in the United States, according to the tracking site FlightAware.
Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Friday morning showed more than 70 incoming flights and more than 85 departing flights canceled between 7:45 a.m. and midnight, with others significantly delayed.
The Pittsburgh International Airport showed about 17 flights canceled that had been scheduled to arrive between 8:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m., including flights coming from Key West, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte, Nashville and Boston. About 14 departures that would have happened between 9:45 a.m. and 1:50 p.m. also were canceled as of Friday morning.
Judi LaPolla of Warren started off Friday morning on a plane in Pittsburgh, expecting to be on a beach in St. Thomas for the family Christmas vacation by evening — but thanks to Winter Storm Elliott, that wasn’t the case.
LaPolla, her husband, Ken, and their son and his girlfriend got stuck on the tarmac after the gears froze on the belt machine that loads luggage. After a few hours and more complications later, their plane took off in a blizzard. Facing turbulence, the flight bound for Charlotte, N.C., was rerouted to a small regional airport in Columbia, S.C., LaPolla said.
“We were rocking and rolling. For real. I was scared,” she said.
Passengers were given the option to deboard in Columbia, but wouldn’t be allowed back on. The LaPolla family sat tight as shuttles ran other passengers from the plane to the airport. Eventually, they were allowed to make the short 20-minute flight to Charlotte, where they rebooked their missed connection to St. Thomas — but found their bags had been pulled and rerouted to their new flight.
Exhausted, they headed to dinner, and were pleasantly surprised to find their server was from St. Thomas.
“This is a good sign we will get out and be on the beach tomorrow,” LaPolla said Friday before turning in for an early night in Charlotte. She said the flight staff from the airline was incredible and never lost their cool through the stress.
Others made it to their holiday destination ahead of the storm.
Tyechia McBride of San Antonio, formerly of Warren, made it home to visit her sister, Tara, and nephews, Darrin, Damari and Vic, well ahead of the storm — though she did have to borrow a coat when it hit. She flew into Cleveland on Dec. 19 and didn’t have any trouble.
“It’s probably because I came a little bit early. I usually come home like two days before Christmas,” McBride said. “I’m hearing a lot of people are having issues getting to their destination or their flights are getting canceled.”
McBride, who is in the Air Force, said coming home for the holidays became more important to her after she lived on a base in Hawaii for a time.
“I realized how far I was. I saw my nephews, I saw people growing up. I missed out on important times in their lives,” McBride said.
Now, she makes a point to get home every Christmas and to have her family visit her when they can. She likes to take her nephews to places they have never been before, she said.
Ashley Fox was planning on a Christmas day road trip after the weather passed, but during Friday’s storm she was sitting tight at home in Boardman.
“Luckily, family that planned on coming in did so a week ago, as they can work remotely,” Fox said. “I’m staying put myself since I drive a ‘micro machine’ of a car, which can handle snow, ice or wind — but not everything together.”
Part of AAA’s prediction for the high volume of travel during the week between Christmas and New Year’s was because both holidays fell on Sundays, said AAA’s Senior Vice President of Travel Paula Twidale, in a news release.
“With hybrid work schedules, we are seeing more people take long weekends to travel because they can work remotely at their destination and be more flexible with the days they depart and return.”
The bulk of holiday travelers, especially those with long holiday breaks or remote working capabilities, were expected to drive — about 101.8 million people.
For those who did and managed to reach their destinations, the worst times to head back are expected be between 3 and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, or between 4 and 7 p.m. Jan. 2, according to AAA. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Jan. 2, drivers may see travel times up to 25 percent longer than usual.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.