msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/26/2011 1:51:45 PM ET 2011-08-26T17:51:45

JetBlue Airlines is the first carrier to begin canceling a significant number of flights as Hurricane Irene barrels toward the Eastern Seaboard.

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The carrier said on its blog that it had begun canceling nearly 900 flights, many of them to and from New York's John F. Kennedy and Boston Logan airports.

The airline also announced on its website early Friday morning that it would waive the change fees for fliers traveling to and from 13 affected airports, which also include Dulles and Reagan National in Washington, D.C., Newark in New Jersey and Portland International in Maine.

Tips for managing travel during Hurricane Irene

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 on Friday.

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 FlightAware. The service's CEO, Daniel Baker, predicted that Irene-related cancellations would pick up Friday afternoon and become significant on Saturday.

Story: Tourists told to leave coastal areas ahead of Irene

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 on Friday, 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.

Trip affected? Here's how airlines are responding

But sheltering planes far from a storm carries risks. If the storm changes path and misses big airports, hundreds of flights will have been canceled unnecessarily.

Irene presents another challenge. Because major travel hubs such as Washington and New York are in its potential path, flights that are canceled or delayed there tend to ripple across the country.

"Most everyone expects New York to get hit, so you're obviously not going to leave a lot of planes on the ground in New York, waiting for a problem," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines.

He said all the airline's Thursday flights in the Bahamian capital of Nassau were canceled and there were delays in Miami due to heavy rain. He said the airline would track forecasts before making decisions about cancellations for Friday.

The airlines announced policies for changing trips free of the normal ticket-change charges.

Travelers on American, United, Continental and Delta could change flights to about two dozen Eastern cities. The policies differed — American let passengers delay trips up to two weeks, others were more restrictive as of Thursday afternoon.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: 700-mile hurricane storms toward East Coast

  1. Closed captioning of: 700-mile hurricane storms toward East Coast

    >> roeker who is on the outer banks of the north carolina . al, what's the latest?

    >> well, ann, the latest is even though it is down to a category 2 storm at 110 miles per hour, keep in mind that is still a potent and dangerous hurricane. hurricane ike came onshore in galveston, texas, as a category 2 storm . so this still is a powerful, powerful storm . it is a category 2 . 110-mile-per-hour winds. tropical force winds extend out almost 300 miles from the center of the storm . hurricane force winds, 90 miles from the center. diameterwise, it's about a 700-mile wide storm . that's the difference from miami to atlanta. as this thing makes its way up the coast. here are the hurricane warnings now stretching from south care all of the way to central new jersey, for hurricane warnings , hurricane watches from new york city and parts of connecticut and new england , severe thunderstorm watches and warnings, extend up into new england as well. it comes up as a category 2 up along the coast. however, it may still intensify because conditions are right for that right now. so by later this afternoon, could be a category 3 storm . stay that way through saturday as it makes its way across the carolinas and the outer banks as a category 3 storm . saturday afternoon. continues to hug the coast. and this is probably one of the most dangerous paths if it continues, comes onshore in new york city or long island as a category 2 storm . here's what we expect as far as the effects of this system. now, we are looking for the effects to the carolinas all of the way to new england . coastal flooding, beach erosion . damaging storm surge , which is the worst damage that can happen. winds, rains, flash floods , downed trees, power outages possible. here's what we expect as far as the storm surge is concerned. we are looking for anywhere from 6 to 11 feet above ground level from the carolinas all of the way to virginia. four feet above ground level going into the delmarva peninsula , maryland, delaware. depending upon the storm track as you get into new jersey, new york, and new england , we're going to have to wait and give you those storm surges . we expect them to be significant. rainfall anywhere from five to ten inches, locally 15 inches of rain. and as you guys know, in the northeast, we've already had a lot of rain. the ground is already saturated. and the root systems for trees have been weakened. it's not going to take much rain or wind to really knock down trees, bring down power lines . this could be -- we're just stressing, could be, david, a catastrophic event up and down the eastern seaboard for 65 million americans.

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