NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A rare white Christmas in parts of the South was complicating life for some travelers as airlines canceled hundreds of flights, while snow was predicted for the nation's Capital and travel authorities warned of potentially dangerous roads.
The National Weather Service said the storm could bring more than 5 inches of snow to the Washington region Sunday. Meteorologist Stephen Konarik said the storm could hit the area Sunday morning and end Sunday night or early Monday. The weather service was also forecasting possible Sunday snow for the New York and Boston areas, with overnight temperatures in the 20s and wind gusts up to 30 mph.
In Nashville, some travelers who expected a smooth trip on Christmas got a rude surprise.
“We were hoping this was going to be a good day to travel,” said Heather Bansmer, 36, of Bellingham, Wash.
She and her husband, Shawn Breeding, 40, had planned to return home on separate flights after a visit to Breeding's family in Bowling Green, Ky. However, Breeding's flight through Atlanta got canceled.
Now the couple planned to spend much of Christmas Day in separate airports.
“A white Christmas is not so welcome,” Breeding said, as the couple stood in the lobby of the Nashville airport with their luggage in a cart.
Brian Korty at the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md. said travelers in the northern Mid-Atlantic region and New England may want to rethink Sunday travel plans.
“They may see nearly impossible conditions to travel in,” he said. “It would be a lot better for them to travel today than it would be tomorrow.”
The snow storm blanketed sections of the Midwest and hampered motorists there on Christmas Eve, before dipping south late Friday. Winter weather advisories were in effect Saturday morning from Arkansas to the Carolinas and from West Virginia to central Alabama. Much of North Carolina was under a winter storm warning.
Delta Air Lines spokesman Kent Landers said 500 weather-related flight cancellations were planned for Saturday nationwide. That included 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from the Atlanta hub.
Only a few hundred people milled about the cavernous terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, many of them recent arrivals from international flights. Fliers were notified Friday when flights were pre-emptively canceled, so most passengers didn't bother to show up. Many chairs were empty, restaurants even emptier.
The arrival and departure boards for flights were awash with red “canceled” signs.
Some couldn't help but chuckle that the flights were nixed long before the first raindrop or snowflake had fallen. By noon Saturday, the weather was gloomy but the much-awaited wintry mix set to descend on Atlanta still hadn't arrived.
“They canceled hundreds of flights and there hasn't even been a drop of rain,” said Stephanie Palmer, who was killing time with her friend Ibrahima Soumano as he awaited a flight to Mali. “This doesn't make sense.”
Landers said Delta would decide on possible additional Sunday cancellations as the time approaches. Landers said anyone with travel plans through Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington and Newark, N.J., on Sunday or Monday can change their flight without a penalty as long as they travel by Dec. 29.
AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said Saturday that the carrier had canceled seven Saturday flights and that afternoon flights from Atlanta would be delayed because of required de-icing of planes. AirTran too offered to waive ticket-change fees for some flights scheduled for this weekend and Monday in the South and Mid-Atlantic.
The Nashville area had an inch or so of snow overnight, and roads appeared to be clear. There was also snow in northern Alabama.
By Saturday morning, 4 to 5 inches of snow had fallen over several hours in Bowling Green, Ky., according to the Weather Service. Louisville had about an inch.
Louisville last had snowfall on Christmas in 2002, when a half-inch fell.
Snow was falling Christmas morning in Cleveland in northern Georgia.
“It's snowing, but there's none sticking yet,” said Miranda Smith at the Kangaroo Express convenience store.
In parts of Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, the snow was likely to be mixed with sleet and rain before turning entirely to snow. Temperatures in Georgia were expected to dip into the 20s on Christmas night, possibly leading to slick road conditions.
In Minnesota, the storm brought 6 inches of snow Friday to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It pushed the monthly total there to 33.4 inches, topping the previous December record set in 1969.
The snow made traveling tough Friday in northeastern Iowa, where the bulk of the storm hovered. Cedar Rapids received more than 7 inches of snow.
Travelers could see airport screeners taking a closer look at empty insulated beverage containers like thermoses because air carriers were alerted about a potential terror tactic involving them, an administration official said.
The Air Transport Association was expecting 44.3 million people on U.S. flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 5 — up 3 percent over the same period a year ago but still below pre-recession travel volume. The average ticket price was $421, up by 5 percent.
The AAA predicted overall holiday travel to rise about 3 percent this year, with more than 92 million people planning to go more than 50 miles by Jan. 2. More than 90 percent said they would be driving.
Said Anderson of the storm: “The timing is really bad.”