Massive winter storm hit much of the Midwest and northern US. Image Credit: Pexels

Dubai: Except for a few university students, most UAE residents and citizens are going ahead with their last-minute travel plans to the United States as freezing temperatures and heavy snow wallop swaths of North America.

Though Dubai’s flagship carrier, Emirates, had cancelled its flights to Chicago on December 22 and 23, the airline confirmed to Gulf News that there are no changes to the carrier’s flight schedule.

“All flights to the US are operating per normal,” said the airline’s spokesperson. Similarly, Etihad Airways has confirmed that all its flights to the US are completed on time. The Abu Dhabi carrier operates 25 flights to the United States every week.

As the punishing winter storm dumped multiple feet of snow across most of the country, thousands of US domestic and a few international flights were cancelled during the holidays. According to flight tracker FlightAware, at least 10,000 flights were cancelled or delayed during this period. However, by Monday, air travel was back to normal. Southwest Airlines’ travellers were the most affected, with the carrier cancelling 2,571 flights -- or 63 per cent of its schedule.

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Limited demand to US

Travel agents are saying bookings are limited this time of the year as most of the holiday travellers left for the US at least a few weeks ago. “There are very few new bookings this time of the year. As for last-minute travellers, they are going ahead with their travels as planned,” said Raheesh Babu, Chief Operating Officer, Musafir.com.

We are not seeing any unusual cancellations at the moment

- Raheesh Babu of Musafir.com

Ahmed M Soliman, CEO of TCA Group of Companies, said, “Unlike other holiday destinations, there isn’t much demand for travelling to the US for the festive period. Most holiday travellers are going to Europe, a few to the Far East and some to the Indian Ocean. That being said, planned holidays are moving forward as planned. Travellers, including luxury travellers, are moving forward with their trips as planned.”

University students postpone return

While there were a few disruptions and changes in plans before Christmas, most –last-minute holidaymakers, except a few University students, are making their way to the US. Some families, however, especially those with University-going children, are in a state of limbo, said Husain Iqbal, General Manager – GSA at Sharaf Travel. “Some families and varsity students are now avoiding travels to the United States. They have cancelled their immediate travel plans and are not intending to re-book their flights in the next 48 to 72 hours. Instead, they have adopted a wait-and-watch approach. They may travel sometime in early January if they choose.”

Iqbal said these trends are common among families travelling to the worst-hit states, such as Chicago, New York, Washington, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada.

The freezing weather conditions act as another deterrent for families. Moreover, airlines are flexible with their date change options. They are offering free date change options, giving families the option to postpone their trip

- Husain Iqbal of Sharaf Travel

The UAE Embassy in Washington has advised its citizens in areas affected by the winter blizzard that paralysed the United States over the Christmas weekend. The embassy has urged the Emirati citizens to follow the safety regulations issued by the authorities and to contact the embassy in case of emergency.

Direct flights are preferred

That being said, most people also prefer direct flights to the United States as transit passengers tend to get derailed when connecting flights get missed or delayed. “People would rather delay or cancel their flights than get stuck inside airports especially during the holiday season,” added Iqbal.

Babu added, “Many transit flights to the US have a stopover at the UK, for example. Given the current delays at Heathrow due to the Border Force strikes, passengers prefer direct flights.” Also, flights to the US remain stubbornly high all the way until early January.

Return tickets to Chicago from Dubai, for departure on December 30 and return on January 8, 2023, are priced at Dh6,385 (Emirates Airlines).

Similary flights to New York on the same dates are priced at Dh7,129. “Leisure travellers do not book tickets to the US at the last minute. These trips are usually planned well in advance,” said Babu.

Moreover, even though the interview waiver has been extended for certain non-immigrant visa holders, a majority of new travellers have to wait time for new tourist and business visas can still take a year.