Flights cancelled at Hartsfield-Jackson. (File Photo)
(USA Today) -- Airlines are cancelling flights by the thousands and air travel is poised to grind to a virtual standstill across much of the Northeast Friday and Saturday. That's thanks to a potentially historic winter storm that's expected to bring blizzard conditions snow that's measured in "feet" to large parts of New York and New England.
RELATED | Check airport delays
GALLERY | Photos from the NE 2013 blizzard
More than 3,700 flights have been canceled since Thursday in the United States, with most of those coming as airports affected by the storm.
In Atlanta, the cancellations were expected to only impact about 200 flights, but that's enough to send a flood of stranded, unhappy families to airport shuttles in search of a place to stay.
"I thought we'd be able to beat it because I just got a picture from my son and it's barely starting," said Kim Manning who left her vacation in Orlando hoping to beat the storm as she headed home to Massachusetts.
Most of cancellations were announced even before the first flakes fell in the Northeast, highlighting a trend in recent years in which airlines have proactively canceled flights ahead of a big storm instead of trying to operate right up until the worst conditions arrive.
United Airlines, the nation's biggest carrier, said on Thursday night that it had preemptively canceled Friday 900 flights in advance of the storm. Delta, the USA's No. 2 airline, put its total at 740. JetBlue, which has its two biggest hubs at New York JFK and Boston, said Thursday that it had already canceled 640 flights for Friday and Saturday.
Cumulatively, airline so far today have axed about 3,155 domestic flights and roughly another 1,224 for Saturday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. That's on top of about 350 canceled yesterday - again, mostly at airports that saw the first effects of the storm.
Sarah Heller came so close to making it to her destination. Her flight actually pulled way from the gate at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. It was one of the last to leave Atlanta headed for New York. But when a problem was reported with air conditioner, Heller got nervous.
"Come on, come on. Let's get it fixed. Let's go or let's sweat. Who needs an air conditioner?" she said with a chuckle.
The hour it took to fix the problem, was an hour too long. Her flight was cancelled.
With such a large number of cancellations and storm related delays, the flight disruptions in New York and the Northeast are all but certain to ripple through airports across the nation.
For two guys traveling from Detroit to Jamaica, the delay de-icing their plane cost them a a day on the beach, after they missed their connecting flight in Atlanta.
Against that ominous air-travel prognosis, airlines have relaxed rebooking rules and are encouraging customers to change their planes to avoid the storm's chaos.
Flexible rebooking rules
Delta was among the airlines to relax its rules, saying fliers scheduled to fly to nearly two dozen cities from Maine to Pennsylvania would be permitted to make a one-time change to their travel schedules without the standard fee.
"Delta is closely monitoring conditions along the storm's forecast path and encourages customers to consider moving up, postponing or re-routing their travel to avoid possible inconvenience from expected flight delays," the airline said in announcing its winter-weather policy.
Delta's waived-fee policy mirrors that of the other big airlines. American, Delta, United, US Airways and most other big carriers charge $150 or more for changing tickets - a fee that comes in addition to any difference in fare that might result.
Low-cost carrier Southwest - which flies more domestic passengers than any other U.S. carrier - does not charge a change fee, but said Wednesday that customers at several would be able to make a change with no recalculation of their fares.
JetBlue, one of the busiest airlines in the Northeast, is waiving fees at a dozen airports because of the storm. JetBlue operates its two biggest hubs at New York JFK and Boston, airports that are both in the storm's path.