PHOENIX — Winter weather stranded thousands of airline passengers on Thursday in a most unusual place: the desert Southwest.
Flights into and out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were severely curtailed on Thursday afternoon because of high winds from a winter storm that dumped heavy rain and deep snow on much of Arizona and California. A limited number of Phoenix planes were still taking off and landing.
Southwest Airlines canceled all arriving and departing flights at Sky Harbor and didn't plan to resume them until Friday.
The airline also canceled flights in Tucson, Ariz., and at Southern California airports. All Southwest takeoffs and landings at airports in Burbank, Ontario and San Diego in California were suspended, most were canceled at John Wayne airport in Orange County, and some were canceled at Los Angeles International Airport.
Airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said more than 400 California and Arizona flights had been canceled as of early afternoon. Passengers were booked on later Southwest flights. Operations were expected to resume at 4 p.m. in San Diego and at 6 p.m. in Burbank and Ontario.
The exact number of Southwest flights affected in Phoenix wasn't available, but the airline has 173 daily nonstops from Phoenix to 44 cities and additional service to 22 cities, said spokeswoman Olga Romero. There are a similar number of arrivals.
US Airways trimmed its Phoenix flight schedule and had canceled 14 mainline and 12 US Airways Express flights. Other operations were continuing as weather allowed, said airline spokeswoman Valerie Wunder. US Airways has 265 daily departures from Phoenix.
United Airlines and other carriers severely curtailed operations at Sky Harbor.
A strong winter storm moving through the West was the culprit. The National Weather Service predicted up to 7 inches of rain could fall on Thursday and Friday in the Phoenix area, and high winds were blowing Thursday afternoon.
The Federal Aviation Administration stopped allowing aircraft nationwide from departing for Phoenix at about 3:30 p.m. local time because of the weather, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. A high wind advisory was also issued, telling pilots to expect winds with gusts up to 40 mph into the evening. Aircraft already in the air were being diverted to other airports.
The Phoenix airport's three runways run east to west, and the wind was coming from the north. Airliners typically don't take off or land when crosswinds are much above 25 mph, Gregor said. Flying weather was equally tough at other airports in the region.
At Sky Harbor, many passengers with canceled flights sat on the floor with laptops out and cell phones to their ears, trying to figure out what to do overnight.
Megan Makarewicz, 33, made a barrage of calls after her 4:30 p.m. Southwest flight home to Detroit was canceled and rescheduled for Friday morning.
"I'm upset because I don't want to be stuck here," she said. "I threw my toothbrush away. I was like, 'Yep, don't need this.'"
Makarewicz, who was in Phoenix for a national training conference for hair stylists, said she'll have to cancel 10 appointments she has booked for Friday.
"I'm shocked because I thought it was just rain," she said. "In Detroit we fly out in some crazy weather."
Indeed, the flight cancelations due to weather were a rarity for the location. Most winter weather delays hit East Coast airports, not the sunny Southwest.
"We're pretty lucky with the weather out here," said Wunder, the spokeswoman for Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways.
Sky Harbor has an average of 1,200 daily arrivals and departures, and airport officials said about 10 percent were canceled on Thursday. The flight cancellations will likely have a ripple effect on travel across the nation, but airlines were working to minimize the impact.
Southwest said affected travelers would be allowed to rebook their flights without penalty.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this story.