Airlines began to cancel flights and move planes out of the way as Hurricane Irene barreled toward the U.S. mainland on Thursday.
The storm will likely force hundreds of cancellations through this weekend and create delays that could ripple across the country.
Airlines said passengers could rebook those trips to many East Coast destinations, from Boston to the Carolinas, for free.
American Airlines and its American Eagle affiliate, with an extensive network in the Caribbean, canceled 126 flights on Thursday. Most were in the Bahamas and south Florida, including Miami, a jumping-off spot for flights to the Caribbean and Latin America.
Delta Air Lines reported four cancellations, and United one. Those and other airlines were watching Irene’s path before deciding how many flights to scrub and where today.
Even before Irene’s arrival, unrelated thunderstorms were causing delays of up to two hours Thursday at major airports in the New York and Washington areas, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. The service’s CEO, Daniel Baker, predicted that Irene-related cancellations would pick up this afternoon and become significant on Saturday.
The storm is expected to come ashore in North Carolina on Saturday then churn up the East Coast, bringing heavy rain and high winds to Washington, Philadelphia and New York on Sunday.
Rail travel will also be affected. Amtrak announced it will cancel most passenger service south of Washington today, Saturday and Sunday. Amtrak still planned to operate trains between southern Virginia and Washington and between Atlanta and New Orleans.
The airlines’ preparation reflects a new approach to dealing with big storms. In recent years, they have waived ticket-change fees and canceled flights long before storms arrive. That has helped reduce the number of travelers and flight crews who get stranded at airports. Canceling flights ahead of time keeps planes out of the path of damaging storms and lets airlines resume normal schedules more quickly after the bad weather passes.