WASHINGTON - As the first flakes of a monster blizzard fell at Reagan National Airport, Kara Macek was hoping that her family's vacation flight to Florida would make it out just before the storm reached its full fury.
"I feel like the last people grasping the helicopters in Saigon, waiting to get out," said Macek, 40, who was among thousands of US air passengers on Friday whose travel plans were disrupted or threatened by the blizzard bearing down on the US capital.
With the snowstorm forecast to drop about 2 to 2.5 feet (61 to 76 cm) of snow in the Washington area after delivering a wintry mix to much of the South, almost 5,000 flights were cancelled or delayed, according to flight tracking website Flightaware.com. Reagan National and the other two Washington airports were among the hardest hit.
"We're in a race to get out," said Macek, the communications director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, as the departure time for the American Airlines (AAL.O) flight to Tampa, Florida, for her, her husband and 2-year-old son Simon was moved back and the snow outside thickened.
For another traveler, Nawaf al-Soghyar, 21, a train to Minneapolis was a possible escape route after two Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) flights in a row that would help get him to Los Angeles were cancelled.
Not making it there by Monday would mean missing the start of classes, said al-Soghyar, a Saudi medical student at California State University at Fullerton.
"I was super prepared for school, getting my schedule ready for the first day. Now I'm running out of time," he said.
Arden Williams, a 45-year-old lawyer from Trinidad, said the approaching storm had forced him to move up his American flight to Miami one day.
"I've got the last seat on the last flight," he said. "The shutdown (in Washington) is immense."
Passengers were not the only ones glad to have escaped the storm.
A video of overjoyed flight attendants dancing in the aisles of a Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) plane bound from Washington, to Dallas went viral. In the clip taken by a passenger, the Southwest crew were dancing to "Happy," the 2013 hit song by artist Pharrell Williams.
The Federal Aviation Administration said blizzard conditions would disrupt travel at Washington and Philadelphia airports. Freezing rain also had forced hundreds of cancellations at Charlotte, North Carolina, it said.
With authorities across the East Coast warning residents to stay off roads, the AAA motorist advocacy group responded to 15,000 roadside emergency calls in the mid-Atlantic region in less than 24 hours from a "dusting" of snow late on Wednesday, AAA regional spokesman John Townsend said.
"That's a lot, that's a whole lot, and it's only going to get worse," he said. Townsend said AAA in the area had received 2,344 calls from midnight to noon on Friday.
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