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Last updated: Friday at 10:55 p.m. ET

(USA TODAY) -- Airlines are cancelling flights by the thousands and air travel hasground to a virtual standstill across much of the Northeast today (Feb.8). Problems will continue through tomorrow, thanks a potentially severewinter storm that's expected to bring blizzard conditions and snowthat's measured in "feet" to large parts of New York and New England.

Nearly5,000 flights have been canceled since Thursday in the United States,with most of those coming at airports affected by the storm.

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Nearlyall airlines had halted flights -- or planned to soon -- at airports inNew York City and New England as of 4 p.m. ET. Officials from JetBlue,Delta and United tell Today in the Sky that at least some flights tothe New York City airports could resume by early Saturday afternoon,though that depended on conditions at the airports following the storm.

JetBlue COO Rob Maruster says the airline is optimistic that it's New York-area flights could resume as early as noon Saturday.

Boston and New England flights, however, were likely to remain offline longer.

Marustersaid JetBlue hoped JetBlue could resume flights to the region by 6p.m., but cautioned it was too early to say with certainty. Otherairlines echoed the sentiment that New England flights could be groundedlonger because of the severity of the storm there.

As for thecancellations already tallied, more than half of the those wereannounced even before the first flakes fell in the Northeast. Thathighlights a trend in recent years in which airlines have proactivelycanceled flights ahead of a big storm instead of trying to operate rightup until the worst conditions arrive.

United Airlines, thenation's biggest carrier, said on Thursday night that it hadpreemptively canceled 900 Friday flights in advance of the storm. Delta,the USA's No. 2 airline, put its total at 740. JetBlue, which has itstwo biggest hubs at New York JFK and Boston, said Thursday that it hadalready canceled 640 flights for Friday and Saturday.

Cumulatively, airlines so far today have axed about 3,200 flights and another 1,400 for Saturday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. That's on top of 370 canceled yesterday - again, mostly at airports that saw the first effects of the storm.

Already,the cancellation totals are piling up at many of those airports. Justat the three big New York City-area airports - Newark, LaGuardia and JFK- more than 1,800 combined flights have already been canceled today andanother 690 for Saturday, according to FlightAware.

In Boston,the count stands at 510 today and 266 for Saturday. It's likely flightsat Boston will be grounded altogether at some point during the storm,which would greatly inflate those numbers.

Southwest has alreadydecided to suspend most flights at some airports, saying it would cancelthe "majority" of its schedule today at Newark and LaGuardia. It'sdoing the same on Saturday for even more airports: Boston, Hartford,Long Island, Manchester and Providence.

With such a large numberof cancellations, the flight disruptions in New York and the Northeastare all but certain to ripple through airports across the nation. Aflight from Houston to Los Angeles, for example, could become delayed orcanceled if the aircraft or crew scheduled to fly it gets knocked offschedule because of problems in Boston or New York.

Perhaps asevidence of that, FlightAware is reporting nearly 100 preemptive Fridayand Saturday cancellations for Houston Bush Continental. At Miami,nearly 90 Friday and Saturday flights had been scrapped by Thursdayevening. Both airports are hubs for airlines that also have hubs in theNortheast, meaning many of the cancellations in Houston and Miami arelikely part of the ripple effect of the cancellations in Newark, JFK,Boston and elsewhere.

Against that ominous air-travel prognosis,airlines have relaxed rebooking rules and are encouraging customers tochange their planes to avoid the storm's chaos.

Flexible rebooking rules

Deltawas among the airlines to relax its rules, saying travelers scheduledto fly to nearly two dozen cities from Maine to Pennsylvania would be permitted to make a one-time change to their travel schedules without the standard fee.

"Deltais closely monitoring conditions along the storm's forecast path andencourages customers to consider moving up, postponing or re-routingtheir travel to avoid possible inconvenience from expected flightdelays," the airline said in announcing its winter-weather policy.

Delta'swaived-fee policy mirrors that of the other big airlines. American,Delta, United, US Airways and most other big carriers charge $150 ormore for changing tickets - a fee that comes in addition to anydifference in fare that might result.

Low-cost carrier Southwest -which flies more domestic passengers than any other U.S. carrier - doesnot charge a change fee, but said Wednesday that customers at severalwould be able to make a change with no recalculation of their fares.

JetBlue, one of the busiest airlines in the Northeast, is waiving fees at a dozen airportsbecause of the storm. JetBlue operates its two biggest hubs at New YorkJFK and Boston, airports that are both in the storm's path.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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