This wasn't the homecoming Megan Kolarik anticipated.
She hopped on a plane Tuesday in Australia, where she works, to make the trip across the globe to be home in Nebraska for the holidays.
Expecting to wake up this morning in her parents' Bellevue home, Kolarik instead will be having a slumber party at a hotel in Houston — an inconvenience caused by one of the biggest snowstorms to blow through the region in recent years.
Today and Friday were expected to be 2012's peak holiday travel days, but many travelers flying to, from and through the Omaha area are experiencing delays and cancellations because of the wintery mix affecting much of the Midwest.
All of Eppley Airfield's outbound flights for very early this morning were canceled except one. Delta Airlines as of late Wednesday planned a departing flight early this today, said Tim Schmitt, operations manager. Some airlines planned to resume normal schedules by late morning.
Those decisions were made by individual airlines, and Schmitt said his crews were doing their best to keep the airport clear.
“We've got everything ready to go,” Schmitt said, noting the airport has seven snowplows, eight brooms, three blowers and two de-icing trucks in its fleet. “We're brooming slush off taxiways and runways.”
Schmitt and Don Smithey, executive of the Des Moines International Airport, said they had no plans to close the airports. Both advised travelers to continue checking their airline's website or call their airline for the most up-to-date information.
“Whatever takes place, we'll deal with it,” said Smithey, who was Eppley's chief executive for many years. “If airlines can get here, we'll have the surface for them to land.”
Southwest Airlines began canceling flights to Omaha late Wednesday from Denver, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Chicago, said spokesman Brad Hawkins.
A handful of other airlines, like Frontier, American and Delta also canceled flights to get ahead of the storm. United Airlines canceled a flight bound from Denver for Omaha because of poor weather conditions in Denver.
“When there's epic precipitation or when we can see there's going to be a problem, we will proactively cancel those flights,” Hawkins said. “We will let those customers know we will accommodate them so they're not sitting on planes that aren't doing anything.”
Matt Petersen of Norfolk, Neb., received an alert from Southwest at 10 a.m. Wednesday that his flight scheduled to leave Eppley for St. Louis early this morning was canceled.
“Normally when you hear flights are being canceled, it's not 20 hours before a flight,” said Petersen, who was supposed to be in St. Louis for a business meeting, “It's just three or four hours before.”
But Hawkins said some airlines' advance cancellations are in part for their own employees' safety.
“Even if an airplane can take off, if we don't have the employees who can work the flights ... it just makes more sense (to cancel),” he said.
Eppley's annual passenger count is about 4.2 million people, while Des Moines' is over 2 million. Schmitt didn't have an expected holiday travel count, but Smithey said Des Moines was expecting 1,500 passengers if there were no cancellations.
Airlines typically don't release customer numbers, but each of the canceled Southwest flights, for example, has the capacity to carry 143 people.
“It's Christmastime, so you can do the math,” Hawkins said “Everything is pretty full.”
He said Southwest had already started to reschedule flights that were supposed to leave early this morning for later in the afternoon.
With lots of people desperate to get to their holiday destinations, travelers should check their flights before they leave home, pack snacks and water for potential delays, and allow for extra drive time to the airport, said Scott Vlasek, director of the UNO Aviation Institute.
“It's going to be hectic on everyone — the airlines, the airport, the passengers,” he said. “Just have some patience, and they'll eventually get where they need to be.”
Kolarik, 23, who was looking forward to a winter holiday at home instead of being in summery Australia, said she's hopeful that United will work with her to reschedule a flight as soon as the storm passes through. Every United flight to Omaha is full until Friday. She's currently on standby, hoping she gets lucky.
“I wanted a white Christmas,” she said, “and I'm getting my wishes granted, but it's definitely bad for travel plans.”
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