Thanksgiving 2013 storm impacts Chicago less than expected

Travelers on Wednesday were surprised how smooth everything was at O'Hare.
November 27, 2013 4:39:03 PM PST
Americans will travel more than 43 million miles for Thanksgiving this year, according to AAA. While 90 percent of travelers will hit the road, the other 10 percent could have some challenges at airports.

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AAA says more than 3 million people will be flying for the Thanksgiving holiday stretch. Almost 2 million of them at one point will be going through Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports.

But on the board in Terminal 3 at O'Hare, there are only a few cancellations or delays. Nationwide, there have been 330 canceled flights, according to orbitz.com. Travelers on Wednesday were surprised how smooth everything was at O'Hare.

"This is the busiest travel day, so I have no idea. I am shocked. I am glad though, happy. I don't know people were nice, they greeted me when I came in here," said Lydia Young, passenger.

"Going to see the family in West Palm and enjoy some sunshine," said Margaret Else, passenger. "Turkey and sunshine and shopping."

One thing that's helping to ease the crowds this year is a new pre-check screening program people can qualify for, which allows passengers to breeze through the TSA. Overall, travel is down this Thanksgiving by 1.5 percent, according to AAA.

"There's always a ripple effect when you have that situation especially since everyone leaves from a hub airport like O'Hare, so many of those flights the origin of the northeast may be coming through O'Hare so travelers want to be aware of that situation," said Jeanenne Tornatore, Orbitz.com.

"Pack all of the important things in a travel carry-on bag with you so that you have it with you prescription medications, cell phone charger and an extra change of clothes for you and all of your passengers," said Beth Mosher, AAA.

"If the airline has an app, add that to your electronic device or PDA and you can check periodically and be up to date on what's going on," said Karen Pride, Chicago Aviation Department.

Lake-effect snow falling in NW Indiana

Complicating matters, lake-effect snow started falling overnight in parts of northwest Indiana, triggering some snow alerts. A light coating of snow could be seen on cars early Wednesday.

The good news for folks out on the roads heading through northwest Indiana is that Porter County forecasters are now saying the lake-effect snow won't be as bad as they originally thought. However, that doesn't mean it's not slippery out there, and if you're going into Michigan, that's when the snow really ramps up.

Even as the snow amounts aren't expected to be as high as originally thought, holiday travel throughout the Michiana corridor is still expected to be impacted, particularly because of the wind gusts, which at times are reducing visibility to less than a mile on the Indiana Toll Road, I-94 and I-80.

"It's going to take me a lot longer to get home, or to my folks' home anyways. They live in the Detroit area, usually three-and-a-half, so I'm going to factor in an extra hour and a half," said Chris George, holiday traveler.

So far, Indiana State Police say no serious weather-related accidents have been reported, but the Indiana Toll Road has activated the winter trailer ban for double and triple trailers. Originally from Minneapolis, the Millers stopped overnight in Michigan City on their way to Detroit.

"I hadn't been really listening to the news and didn't know about this blast so I'm hoping that it's going to be fine on the roads. We're expecting travelers from NYC too that we're really hoping are going to get there," said Lissa Miller.

In Michigan City and LaPorte County, Ind., snow plows and salt trucks were deployed. More snow could fall during the day Wednesday, and by the end of the day, those areas could see as much as six inches. The wind was also a factor Wednesday morning, making visibility difficult. For that reason, some holiday travelers to hit the roads earlier than they planned, and others headed to Chicago-area airports.

Transportation officials advised travelers to check with their airlines and reduce speed on highways. Travel experts suggested airline passengers might be able to have penalty fees waived if they wanted to change their bookings because of the weather.

Behind the scenes with United Airlines

Chicago-based United Airlines gave ABC7 Eyewitness News a look at how it handles flights during this busy time of year.

"We have a lot of people traveling, and people who also may not travel often. It is wintry. So, we have up our game both in the lobby and out there on the ramp," said Aaron Goldberg, senior manager, United Airlines customer service planning.

The airline says it has also upped its kiosk design, along with a matching iPhone app.

"Flight status, your boarding pass, where your gate is. It has cool features, like where an aircraft is coming from and what kind aircraft you're flying on," Goldberg said.

United and other airlines are now partnering with the TSA. By signing up through a participating airline's website for "Free Check," you can be selected to speed through the security line by not taking off your shoes and keeping your laptop in your bag.

Once you're in, there's a new way to ease the anxiety of eager crowds wanting to board. There is a new way to organize passengers in lanes one through five. One reason many people want to be in one of the first few groups: that battle for bin space. So, United Airlines has added space to overhead bins. And another way to avoid the lines: money.

"This revenue-based program, and it's by invitation only," said Philippe Gaspard, United Global Services supervisor. "There are certain criteria you need to meet, and when you do, then, you get the call."

If you get the call from Global Services, you're escorted through a private check-in process and brought to the front of security.

"It takes five minutes. You just walk in, and you're on the plane within the next 10 minutes," passenger Amy Resnick said.

And even if you're not a member of the special program, you can still buy those services a la carte. Some of them can get you through security faster or give you priority boarding.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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