NEW YORK - Thanksgiving travelers scrambled to book earlier flights Tuesday to avoid a sprawling storm bearing down on the East Coast with a messy mix of snow, rain and wind that threatened to snarl one of the busiest travel days of the year and ground giant balloon versions of Snoopy and SpongeBob SquarePants in the Macy's parade.
The characters that soar between Manhattan skyscrapers every year may not lift off Thursday if sustained winds exceed 23 mph and gusts exceed 34 mph, according to city rules enacted after fierce winds in 1997 caused a Cat in the Hat balloon to topple a light pole and seriously injure a spectator.
Current forecasts call for sustained winds of 20 mph and gusts of 36 mph.
Holiday travelers wait in the security line at Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa., on Tuesday afternoon. Winter weather advisories and storm warnings have been posted for much of Pennsylvania as a storm bearing a wintry mix of precipitation rolls into the commonwealth.
"At this time, it is too early to make any determinations on the flight of the giant balloons," said Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras. "On Thanksgiving morning, Macy's works closely with the NYPD, who, based on real time weather data and the official regulations determine if the balloons will fly and at what heights."
Balloons have been grounded only once in the parade's 87-year history, when bad weather kept them from flying in 1971. They're set to be inflated in Manhattan on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, meteorologists warned that the storm, which has moved across the country, would almost certainly upset holiday travel plans on Wednesday for those hoping to visit loved ones in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Many travelers were moving to earlier flights, taking advantage of airlines' policies to waive their normal change fees.
Lisa Jablon was originally supposed to fly Delta from New York City to Syracuse, N.Y., on Wednesday at 9:39 a.m. But after following the storm's movements, she decided to jump on the last flight out Tuesday night.
"I'm flying up to spend the holiday with my boyfriend's family and I didn't want to get stuck," Jablon said. "The rain seems to be better off tonight than it looks tomorrow morning."
The good news is that the storm is supposed to pass through the Northeast before Thanksgiving Day, with the weather mostly clearing up by Wednesday evening.
Most airlines are hoping the storms won't be too severe, allowing them to continue operating a nearly full schedule with few cancellations, but likely a lot of delays, said Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, a global flight tracking service.