Thanksgiving air travel set to be busiest since pandemic

By Rajesh Kumar Singh

CHICAGO (Reuters) -Flights and airports across the United States are expected to have one of their busiest days since before the pandemic on Wednesday as millions of people fly to visit their families for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects to screen about 20 million air passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period, the most since 2019 when nearly 26 million Americans were on the move at that time, as rising COVID-19 vaccination rates have made people more confident about travel.

The travel demand is also getting a boost from consumers flush with savings as rising wages along with government stimulus have strengthened household balance sheets.

On Tuesday, the TSA screened about 2.21 million U.S. air passengers, the sixth consecutive day with checkpoint volume topping 2 million.

Los Angeles International Airport expects 2 million passengers. Victoria Spilabotte, the airport’s public information officer, said the numbers showed people were willing to travel again and added that passengers should arrive early to allow extra time for security.

The holiday weekend is a test for carriers after a spate of flight cancellations marred travel over the summer. One in five Americans are concerned about delays and cancellations, an American Pecans/YouGov survey found.

Carriers have ramped up staffing and offered bonuses and other incentives to employees.

“We’re staffed and ready to get our customers to where they need to go safely, reliably and enjoyably,” a Delta Air Lines spokesperson said.

Calm weather expected for Thanksgiving should also help to prevent disruption.

Some passengers at the Los Angeles airport said the airport was not as busy as they expected.

“So far, so good,” said Lani Emanuel, who is traveling to Seattle to see her daughter. “It was a little tricky finding parking, but it doesn’t seem too crazy busy just yet.”

U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak is also expecting a jump in passenger volumes. A company spokesperson said some trains are already close to full capacity.

Travel group AAA estimates, in all, 53.4 million people will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020, with air travel recovering to about 91% of pre-pandemic levels.

The biggest concern this holiday season is high fuel prices, the YouGov survey found.

(Reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh; additional reporting by David Shepardson, Alan Devall and Omar Younis; Editing by Stephen Coates, Barbara Lewis and Mark Porter)

U.S. holiday air travel week opens briskly

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans have begun hitting the roads and skies in large numbers in advance of Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday as weather so far looks favorable for travel plans.

On Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration screened 2.21 million U.S air passengers, the fourth consecutive day with checkpoint volume topping 2 million.

The TSA said Friday was the single busiest air travel day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with 2.24 million travelers screened.

AccuWeather said Monday that “a largely quiet weather pattern should prevent widespread travel worries from the weather ahead of Thanksgiving.”

The weather forecaster added that “some Americans could still face minor weather-related delays during one of the busiest travel periods of the year – and weather for the trip home may be a different story.”

As vaccination rates have risen, many Americans are traveling for the holidays after skipping family gatherings last November and December.

Travel group AAA forecasts 53.4 million people will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020, with most travelers going by car. About 48.3 million Thanksgiving travelers are expected to go by car, up from 47.1 million last year, but still below 2019’s 49.9 million.

Those on the roads will face gasoline prices hovering near the highest since 2014, and the high prices likely will prompt some Americans not to make holiday trips.

Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said some Americans “are responding to the prices by slamming the car door shut and staying off the road.”

TSA expects to screen about 20 million air passengers during the busy Thanksgiving travel period, compared with nearly 26 million in the same period in 2019.

“We are ready,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told reporters on Friday at Washington Reagan National Airport. “We will be able to handle the passenger volumes that we anticipate seeing.”

Airlines have ramped up staffing and offered bonuses and other incentives to employees facing the busy holiday travel season.

Delta Air Lines said it expects to fly up to 5.6 million passengers from Friday through Nov. 30, nearly 300% over 2020’s 2.2 million Delta passengers for the period but still below the 6.3 million passengers during the same period in 2019.

United Airlines said it anticipates more than 4.5 million passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period – about 88% of 2019 volume.

United Chief Executive Scott Kirby told Skift last week he has confidence in the airline’s ability to fly its holiday schedule. “We’ve left ourselves a margin of error,” Kirby said.

He cautioned, however, that problems can ripple and “If you are not careful it can cascade into a meltdown.”

Some airlines have in recent weeks faced weather issues, resulting in hundreds of daily cancellations over several days.

United said it was adding about 700 domestic flights for Thanksgiving week, and would fly 87% of its 2019 domestic schedule in November.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Dan Grebler)

Catch-all travel insurance booms as U.S. flyers take Thanksgiving risks

By Noor Zainab Hussain

(Reuters) – U.S. websites have seen a surge in travelers seeking expensive ironclad insurance this Thanksgiving, as Americans desperate to break the monotony of a year spent at home look to cover themselves against coronavirus-related risks.

Data from insurance comparison website Squaremouth on Tuesday showed the number of insurance policies purchased for U.S. domestic trips over the upcoming holiday was up 170%, compared to the same period of 2019.

Some 40% of all Thanksgiving travelers specifically searched for coronavirus cover, replacing top concerns from previous years, such as weather and financial defaults, and spurring a rise in the overall cost of cover.

“Cancel-for-any-reason” policies, which typically allow cancellations up until two days before departure and a 75% reimbursement, cost up to 40% more than a regular policy.

“It’s just gotten to a point I think people are tired of being stuck at home and they’re looking to get away and go somewhere,” said Jeremy Murchland, president of U.S. travel insurer Seven Corners.

More than 3 million passengers passed through U.S. airports over the weekend, discarding advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay at home as coronavirus infections reached daily records.

Overall traveler numbers are still down 60% from a year ago, but Squaremouth, one of the country’s main insurance price aggregators, said its data suggested that the total number of travelers seeking cover was up 26% year-on-year.

The data from Squaremouth is based on all travel insurance policies purchased on its website between March 12 and Nov. 9 for travel over the week of Thanksgiving.

With trips to popular European destinations effectively banned, and the risks of quarantine and other curbs weighing on travelers’ decision making, overall requests for cover to foreign locales were lower than those for domestic trips.

Those for the Bahamas and Costa Rica were down by just over half. Requests for insurance for trips to Mexico, however, were down just 23% year-on-year, and for the Turks and Caicos islands, just off Haiti, where luxury hotels are guaranteeing COVID-19-secure bubbles, they are up more than 500%.

For those traveling outside the United States, a travel insurance policy that also has medical cover for COVID-19 will cover medical treatment that a normal healthcare policy would not, as well as potentially medical evacuation.

Courtney Glass, a California-based stage actress, is insuring a trip with her parents to Guatemala to rendezvous with her sister and newborn niece Madi.

“Madi arrived right as the virus did. She’s crawling and trying to talk now and we just don’t want to miss any more of this time,” she said.

“If we don’t go now, we probably won’t go until after the holidays. And potentially, not until after the vaccine that everybody’s talking about is distributed.”

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Penn; Editing by Patrick Graham and Sriraj Kalluvila)

‘Very stressful’: COVID-19 surge slices U.S. demand for big Thanksgiving turkeys

By Tom Polansek and Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) – All summer, Greg Gunthorp slaughtered and froze 15- to 24-pound turkeys on his northeastern Indiana farm for Thanksgiving sales to retailers, restaurants and families across the Midwest.

But as surging COVID-19 cases prompted U.S. cities and states to urge Americans to stay home just weeks before the holiday, customers swapped out orders for whole birds for smaller turkey breasts.

As a last-minute shift toward small-scale celebrations upends demand for the star of Thanksgiving tables, turkey producers and retailers are scrambling to fill orders for lightweight birds and partial cuts.

“It was very stressful,” Gunthorp said. “It cut our numbers on being able to fill customer sizes that they wanted for turkeys – way too short.”

Gunthorp raised and sold nearly 7,000 pasture-raised turkeys this year, up 75% from a year ago. Restaurants and meat shops in major Midwestern cities, his primary clients, cut orders by 10% to 20%, but Gunthorp has made up the difference by partnering with online retailers, shipping turkeys as far away as Los Angeles.

Suppliers need to be nimble as about half of Americans plan to alter or skip traditional festivities due to local health advisories against big gatherings, according to market research firm Nielson. About 70% are planning a Thanksgiving with fewer than six people, compared with 48% last year.

Demand for smaller birds will trim turkey production to 1.445 billion pounds in the last quarter, down five million pounds from previous expectations, according to a Nov. 17 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We have seen our supply chain adjust to market disruptions and shifting consumer needs,” said Beth Breeding, spokeswoman for the industry group National Turkey Federation. “Like the rest of the country, it has been a challenging year for turkey production.”

While best known for beef, Nebraska-based Omaha Steaks this year offered 3-pound turkey breasts for the first time to cater to smaller Thanksgiving gatherings, said Nate Rempe, president and chief operating officer. The pre-cooked product sold out online, as some consumers are avoiding grocery stores.

Omaha Steaks also sold out of 10-pound turkeys earlier than usual, Rempe said.

“The number of individual Thanksgiving meals being prepared … is going to be much higher because of the separation of gatherings,” he said.

Butterball, the largest U.S. producer of turkey products, shipped 1,900 truckloads of whole turkeys to grocers in the past two weeks, said Al Jansen, executive vice president of marketing and sales. Many major chains booked orders in the first quarter before the coronavirus outbreak, he added.

Retailers have slashed whole-turkey prices by about 7% to an average of $1.21 per pound, the lowest since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. That cuts the average cost of a Thanksgiving meal for 10 people by 4% to $46.90, Farm Bureau said.

The decline is welcome news for the nearly 24 million households facing empty cupboards due to COVID-19-related job losses. Food insecurity has nearly tripled since the pandemic began, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“Thanksgiving will not be a holiday that all Americans can enjoy this year,” said Joseph Llobrera, research director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Alarming levels of food hardship will last through the holidays and beyond unless policymakers immediately provide robust COVID relief.”

Some Americans who had relied on others to cook on Thanksgiving are ordering part or all of their meals from restaurants for the first time. Others simply do not want the hassle of preparing a feast for just a few guests.

“Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year, and we know there’s a lot of cooking fatigue out there right now,” said Tracy Hostetler, a vice president for Perdue Farms. The company launched turkey “ThanksNuggets” as an alternative to traditional turkey dinners.

In Houston, independent marketing consultant Anh Nguyen, 50, will dine with about 10 relatives on a smoked turkey from a local restaurant. Normally, three times as many of her family members gather to gobble up two 20-pound turkeys cooked at home.

“It’s a little weird,” said Nguyen. “Thanksgiving has been historically just one of the holidays where everybody is together.”

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper and Tom Polansek; Editing by Richard Chang)

Despite COVID-19 travel warnings, many Americans ‘not living in fear’ ahead of Thanksgiving

By Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Millions of Americans appear to be defying health warnings and traveling ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, likely exacerbating a surge in coronavirus infections before a series of promising new vaccines become widely available.

With U.S. COVID-19 infections hitting a record 168,000 per day on average, Americans are flocking to airports against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. surgeon general and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

For Americans, the long holiday weekend, which begins on Thursday, is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year, and 2020 may prove to be no exception.

Some 1 million passengers passed through airport screenings on Sunday, the highest number since March. It was the second time in three days that passengers screened topped 1 million but screenings are down nearly 60% from the same time last year, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths rose for a 12th straight day, reaching 1,500 as of Monday, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

That has further taxed already exhausted medical professionals, as coronavirus hospitalizations have surged nearly 50% over the past two weeks and the United States has surpassed 255,000 deaths and 12 million infections since the pandemic began.

Pleading with residents to stay home and avoid gatherings during the holiday season, Governor Andrew Cuomo reminded New Yorkers of the grim early days of the pandemic when as many as 800 people died in a single day in the state.

Hospitalizations have spiked 122% in New York state over the last three weeks, Cuomo said, prompting the re-opening of an emergency medical facility on Staten Island.

Help could arrive soon. The head of the U.S. campaign to rapidly deploy a vaccine said the first Americans could start receiving vaccinations as early as mid-December, and another global drug company on Monday unveiled promising trial results on a vaccine candidate.

“NOT LIVING IN FEAR”

Still, many Americans are refusing to follow the health advice that could save their lives.

In Pennsylvania, the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was 25% last week, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. On Monday, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine warned that the latest models indicated the state could start to run out of intensive care unit beds within a week.

Linda Lafferty, a nurse and the owner of a bed and breakfast in McConnellsburg, said family and friends gathered on the first Sunday in November to celebrate, as they do every year because she and others often have to work on Thanksgiving Day.

But Lafferty said her family would have assembled if they could.

“We are not living in fear and if we were able to get together on Thanksgiving Day we absolutely would,” said Lafferty, 47. “We would still get together and we wouldn’t limit the number of folks because if you are family you are family.”

To be sure, many Americans said they would do their best to conform with health recommendations.

Donnalie Hope, a 78-year-old resident of Petersburg, West Virginia, is planning to make fresh cranberries, mash potatoes and her famous corn pudding for Thanksgiving, which she will spend with her daughter, who will be visiting, and a neighbor.

Hope said they would social distance as much as possible in her home, and that she planned to ready rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. She acknowledged that her guests might eventually take off their masks in the home.

“I’m trying very hard to comply with the regs because I want this country to get back to where it belongs,” she said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, David Shepardson and Susan Heavey in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Maria Caspani; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. officials worry about holiday spike as coronavirus surges

By Brendan O’Brien and Maria Caspani

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. health authorities braced for further increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on Friday, capping a week in which the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerated ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases reached more than 165,000 on Thursday, while the seven-day average for deaths climbed to 1,359, more than any day since late May, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

With hospitalizations rising across much of the nation, straining already exhausted medical staff, officials in more than 20 states have imposed restrictions to curtail the spread of the virus.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the virus is spreading at a high rate across more than half the country and that Thanksgiving gatherings should be limited to immediate family members rather than a maximum number of people.

“I don’t like it to be any number… if you say it can be 10, and it’s eight people from four different families, then that probably is not the same degree of safe as 10 people from your immediate household,” Birx told CNN on Friday.

In a positive sign for combating the pandemic, Pfizer Inc. said it will apply to U.S. health regulators on Friday for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine, the first such application in a major step toward providing protection against the virus.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE this week reported final trial results that showed the vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 with no major safety concerns.

If the data is solid, “we literally could be weeks away from the authorization of a 95% effective vaccine,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said on CBS’ “This Morning.”

California’s governor on Thursday imposed some of the most stringent restrictions on the vast majority of the state’s population, with a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities that will start on Saturday night and end on the morning of Dec. 21.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Similar restrictions took effect in Ohio this week, while Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were stretched to capacity.

In Illinois, where the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was at an alarmingly high 20% and new restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining, took effect on Friday, long lines appeared again at testing sites.

In Chicago’s metro area, Emily Randall had no luck finding an opening to get tested after she woke up with a throbbing headache on Thursday.

“It’s very frustrating because I’m trying to be a responsible citizen,” said the 43-year-old research analyst. “My head feels a lot better but I am still worried because I have read stories of people who got better and then, all of a sudden, got worse.”

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

Daily COVID-19 deaths surpassed the 2,000 mark for the first time since late June on Thursday.

THANKSGIVING FEARS

U.S. officials have pleaded with the public to avoid unnecessary travel and exercise caution as the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

Although COVID-19 restrictions have received more bipartisan support from state leaders in recent weeks, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, refused to limit gatherings on Thanksgiving.

“In South Dakota, we won’t stop or discourage you from thanking God and spending time together this Thanksgiving,” Noem said in a statement on Friday.

With cases and deaths increasing steadily in most states, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its widely cited model.

It now projects 471,000 coronavirus deaths by March 1, up from less than 440,000 in its previous forecast.

In hard-hit Wisconsin, the state’s hospital association implored lawmakers to address the growing crisis by providing more resources to health care workers and facilities.

“With few tools available right now to curb spread other than increasingly urgent public appeals, our COVID numbers are growing rapidly and predict, quite accurately so far, a health care crisis in Wisconsin that without significant, swift, and unified action will become a catastrophe,” Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding wrote in a letter to legislators and the governor on Thursday.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, California; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. disease experts: Don’t travel for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca Spalding and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

The travel advice is a “strong recommendation,” not a requirement, CDC official Henry Walke said on a call with reporters. The federal agency said it was making the recommendation after many states across the country experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“We’re alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Walke said.

The CDC advised against gathering with anyone who has not lived in the same household for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Officials said they were also posting recommendations on their website on how to stay safe during the holidays for those Americans who do choose to travel.

“It is the right advice. We are in a major surge in the U.S. with hospitals inundated,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said at a Reuters forum. “There are some that will travel nonetheless, but, hopefully, they will put in place some common-sense measures to limit the damage the virus can cause.”

While the CDC recommended virtual gatherings, for those who do gather in person, guests should bring their own food and utensils and celebrate outdoors if possible, it said.

If celebrating indoors, it recommends that Americans open windows and put fans in front of open windows to pull fresh air into the room where guests are sitting. It also suggests limiting the number of people near where food is being prepared.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as Americans gather with friends and family around the country. Shares in airlines and hotel companies have plummeted since the outbreak began as government officials have advised against unnecessary travel.

The AAA travel agency has said it anticipates at least a 10 percent drop in the number of travelers this Thanksgiving, the largest single-year drop since 2008. Based on its October models, it forecasts 50 million Americans will travel for the holiday, compared with 55 million in 2019.

With the CDC recommendations, it expects that number now to be even lower.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each said on Thursday that bookings were weakening due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, and United said cancellations were rising.

(Reporting by Rebecca Spalding, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson and Lisa Pauline Mattackal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Henderson)

CDC asks Americans to avoid trick-or-treating, indoor Halloween parties

(Reuters) – Americans should avoid door-to-door trick-or-treating, attending crowded and indoor parties, and wearing costume masks this Halloween to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. health agency said that many traditional Halloween activities could be high-risk for spreading viruses and outlined several safer, alternative ways to participate in a note on holiday celebrations.

The guidance comes after new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labor Day holiday.

The health agency also said activities like attending haunted house settings, consuming alcohol or drugs and attending the fall festival that is outside one’s community were high risk and should be avoided.

CDC advised one-way trick-or-treating where participants are six feet apart and wearing Halloween-themed cloth masks.

Other low-risk activities include carving pumpkins and decorating one’s home, outdoor scavenger hunts and parties, virtual costume contests and hosting a movie night with household members.

The health agency recommended tailoring all Halloween activities based on whether coronavirus infections were spiking in a given area, adding that the new guidelines are not meant to replace any local or state mandates on the pandemic.

For Thanksgiving, CDC advised against long distance travel, attending crowded parades and going shopping in crowded shops.

(Reporting By Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps

No phones, scripted tweets: How Trump’s Afghanistan trip was kept under wraps
By Humeyra Pamuk

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Notorious for leaks and chastened by previous security lapses, the White House went to unusual lengths to keep President Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan under wraps, devising a cover story for his movements that included posting scripted tweets while he was in the air, administration officials said.

On Thursday, Trump dropped in unannounced on troops at Afghanistan’s Bagram military air base in his first trip to the country and only his second to a war zone during his presidency. He served soldiers a turkey dinner and posed for selfies, before telling reporters that the United States and Taliban hoped to resume peace talks. [nL1N2880NT]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 33-hour roundtrip, which White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said had been weeks in the making, was the administration’s success in keeping it secret until shortly before the president left Afghanistan to return home.

Frequently wrong-footed by leaks and Trump’s freewheeling use of Twitter, the White House informed only a tight circle of officials about the trip.

On Tuesday, Trump travelled to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida as scheduled, accompanied by the regular caravan of reporters which follows the president on all trips.

When those journalists waited for him to emerge for a Thursday afternoon conference call with the troops, per his official schedule, they learnt that overnight he had flown the 13,400 km (8,331 miles) to Afghanistan to visit them in person.

“It is a dangerous area and he wants to support the troops,” Grisham told a small group of correspondents aboard Air Force One on Wednesday evening, explaining why the White House had concealed Trump’s true movements.

Only hours before, that second group of reporters had secretly gathered at a parking lot near the Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, a regular departure spot for Trump, from which they were driven in minivans into the complex.

They had been told ahead of time that Trump would be travelling incognito to an undisclosed location.

Once inside the base, all smart phones and any devices that could send a signal were confiscated and not returned until at least two hours after Trump’s arrival at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Throughout the 13-hour flight, nobody on board Air Force One had access to their phones, including White House staff, Grisham said. The cabin lights were mostly switched off and window blinds stayed shut.

Last Christmas, en route to a troop visit in Iraq, Air Force One was identified above England by a plane spotter who tweeted a photo of its distinctive turquoise livery, sparking a social media storm. Many speculated then that Trump was on his way to a war zone, pointing to his unusually quiet Twitter account, which had sent dozens of tweets the day before.

This time, Grisham said the White House made arrangements to ensure continuity in the president’s Twitter account, which posted happy Thanksgiving tweets as he was in the air, including one thanking the military.

“We just had a nice Thanksgiving dinner,” Trump said amid chants of “U-S-A” during his speech at the Bagram base.

“I thought I was going to be doing it someplace else.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michelle Price and Daniel Wallis)

Storms snarl U.S. Thanksgiving travel, stranding cars and planes

Storms snarl U.S. Thanksgiving travel, stranding cars and planes
By Jane Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Two winter storms blasted the United States on Wednesday, stranding motorists and causing thousands of flight delays as Americans jammed highways and airports to visit family and friends for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Scores of vehicles got stuck on Interstate 5 after a “bomb cyclone” – a supercharged winter storm caused by a rapid drop in atmospheric pressure – dumped up to four feet (1.2 meters) of snow in mountainous areas of the Pacific Northwest.

“We’ve been white knuckling it for the last four hours and sliding around the road,” said Lisa Chadwick after she stopped in Bend, Oregon, driving north from San Francisco. She had snowchains for her two-wheel drive car, but did not know how to put them on.

The U.S. Midwest was also hit hard by a storm that clobbered Denver on Tuesday, with airports in Minneapolis and Chicago suffering hundreds of delays and cancellations.

The storms hit on one of the busiest travel days of the year, with a near-record 55 million Americans set to journey at least 50 miles (80 km) for Thanksgiving on Thursday, according to the American Automobile Association.

After parts of Colorado got up to 30 inches (75 cm) of snow on Tuesday, Minneapolis was expected to get as much as 12 inches as the system slid east, said Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland.

The storm, which is packing high winds, will move across upper Michigan and upstate New York toward central Maine, which could get 6 to 10 inches of snow, the Weather Service forecast.

“LOTS OF HONKING”

On the West Coast, heavy rain threatened flash floods from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles International Airport told domestic passengers to arrive three hours early as it expected 238,000 passengers and 113,000 vehicles on Wednesday.

“There has been definitely lots of honking, lots of near accidents that I’ve seen, for sure,” Daniel Julien, a 24-year-old paralegal from Pasadena, said after making it to the airport.

A silver lining was that rain doused the Cave Fire in Santa Barbara County, which charred 7 square miles (1,810 hectares) of brush and woodlands. But it brought evacuation warnings to thousands of residents in Santa Barbara suburbs for possible mudslides on fire-charred hills.

Across the country, 4,083 flights were delayed, and 148 were canceled into or out of the United States by 6.30 p.m. ET, with Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport tallying the most, according to FlightAware.com.

“There are apocalyptic storms all over the country and 50mph winds! Why would things not be the worst. Anyway pray 4 me,” said a Twitter user going by the name of Abigail H., who was leaving O’Hare on Wednesday.

The East Coast was largely unscathed, but wind gusts of up to 40 mph (64 km) forecast for Thursday morning threatened to sideline the Macy’s New York City Thanksgiving parade’s 16 giant balloons for safety reasons. Organizers have said they will make the decision on Thursday whether to go ahead.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Andrew Hay in Taos and Jane Ross in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, David Gregorio and Sonya Hepinstall)