‘Once-in-a-Generation’ winter storm to impact Christmas travel to, from Phoenix

Some travelers told Arizona's Family their flights were canceled as they're trying to get home for the holidays.
Published: Dec. 22, 2022 at 6:26 AM MST|Updated: Dec. 22, 2022 at 6:10 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/CNN) -- A major winter storm and cold blast will impact nearly every state and bring what the National Weather Service is calling a “once-in-a-generation type event” that will cripple travel on some of the busiest travel days of the year. The strengthening storm will bring more than a foot of snow and possible blizzard conditions to the Midwest, as the weather service warns of “life-threatening” wind chills for millions.

More than 90 million people are under winter weather alerts, and more than 87 million are under wind chill alerts. The alerts stretch across 37 states, dipping as far south as the Texas/Mexico border.

Due to the arctic blast, many Americans won’t make it home for the holidays, and many more won’t make it there on time. Sky Harbor Airport had 67 cancellations on Thursday and more than 300 delays. It comes as Arizona’s Family reported on Wednesday that more than 100 delays and cancelations were being reported for the busy holiday weekend.

Many mixed emotions were felt at the airport on Thursday. Some travelers were excited for their loved ones to get here, and others were disappointed after seeing their flights delayed. “Denver. Theoretically. Hopefully,” said Bill Gilbert, who was traveling on Thursday.

Due to the massive “once-in-a-generation snowstorm,” many were anxious. “I just want to get home for Christmas,” Gilbert said. He’s among many trying to get back home to family. “I think I’ll spend the night in Salt Lake if I were to guess. Some of us from here are driving. I might consider that but once I’m in Salt Lake I know I’ll get to Denver,” he said.

While others, like Brenda Blunt, are holding their breath until they finally embrace their loved one. “So he was going to be flying out of Boise. His flight was canceled. They just couldn’t get a flight out until Christmas Eve. They just gave up on airplanes and decided to drive,” Blunt said.

Blunt is hoping she’ll get to live out her holiday plans. “The timing is bad. People want to get someplace for Christmas. I have a lot of friends who aren’t going to see grandparents or different things because of the storm. But you can’t control the weather,” she said.

About 100 million people are being affected by this week's storms, according to the National Weather Service.

If you’ve had your flights canceled or experienced delays, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg says you may be entitled to compensation. “We just issued millions of dollars in fines and secured hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds across America. In cases where airlines were not living up to their end of the bargain,” said Buttigieg.

According to the National Weather Service, the number of people under winter and wind chill alerts has grown to over 100 million or roughly a third of the US population. The cold will stick around for Christmas weekend, making this the coldest Christmas in roughly 40 years for portions of the Plains and Midwest.

CNN reports that Thursday will be the most challenging day for travel. The storm will be hitting the Midwest extremely hard with heavy snow and strong winds. Western Minnesota will face not only blizzard conditions but potentially deadly wind chills Thursday and Friday. “Whiteout conditions are expected during that time with travel becoming very difficult or impossible,” said the weather service. “This event could be life-threatening if you are stranded with wind chills in the 30 below to 45 below zero range.”

Chicago could also face blizzard conditions with winds gusting as high as 50 mph, with a forecast of 2 to 4 inches of snow. “Overall, concern continues to increase in the quick development of dangerous conditions Thursday afternoon with potentially significant impacts to the evening peak travel window,” warned the weather service office in Chicago.

Additionally, strong winds may knock out power lines in the Midwest, especially in areas where heavy snow fell last week and is already weighing down tree branches. This will leave millions finding a way to stay warm as temperatures plummet to well below freezing.

Snow could fall as far south as Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis, and Nashville in Tennessee, and even Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday. Little to no accumulation is expected for most of the southern cities. However, Nashville could pick up about an inch of snow.

In anticipation of what will be a week of travel nightmares, United, American, Delta, Southwest, and Jet Blue have issued travel waivers for dozens of airports across the country from the South to the Northeast because, in addition to snow covering roadways, low visibility could make air travel dangerous.

At least 1,000 flights had been canceled across the US, according to the flight tracking site Flightaware on Wednesday evening. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport leads the way, followed by Denver International and Chicago’s Midway International.

Cancellations at those airports could have a wider impact because they are busy hubs where travelers often change planes in order to reach other destinations. Thursday is expected to be the busiest pre-Christmas day for travel.

If your flight delay or cancellation was due to an airline issue, your airline might be obligated to give you a free meal, ground transportation, or even a hotel room. If you want to know your rights, here is a dashboard to break it down.

What can travelers expect for the weekend?

By Friday, the storm is expected to become a bomb cyclone -- a term that means that the storm rapidly intensifies – and drops 24 millibars (a term used to measure atmospheric pressure) in 24 hours.

“This is a case in which snow totals may not tell the whole story. Even small snow amounts, when combined with very strong wind gusts and plummeting temperatures, can cause poor visibility and slick spots on roads. The sudden arrival of these conditions can increase the danger,” the weather service explained. Friday night into Saturday morning, New England will get a quick shot of snow and windy conditions.

The cold temperatures will stay through Christmas weekend, before finally moderating next week.

Going on a road trip?

If you’re going to hit the road instead, there are a number of things to check before starting your trip. Watch the video below for more:

Follow these tips to check your lights, wipers, tires, battery, filter and more.