President Barack Obama said the impact of the unusually large storm could be "extremely dangerous and costly" for a nation that still recalls the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," Obama said.
US federal and state leaders, from Obama downward, urged the millions of Americans in the hurricane's path to prepare and to heed evacuation orders if they received them.
:Bloomberg evacuates 300,000 New Yorkers before
stormEast Coast Jewish communities brace for Hurricane
Hurricane Irene is expected to make landfall along the North Carolina coast on Saturday around 8am (EST), CNN reported.
Airlines canceled nearly 8,000 weekend flights as the storm swept up the US east coast toward New York, forcing carriers to move planes to safer areas and halting services at the busiest US hub.
The disruption was part of an extraordinary preemptive effort by business and governments to limit public exposure to Irene's fury by shutting down heavily traveled transportation networks.
Subway and bus systems and passenger rail services also planned to halt service. Motorists were urged to stay off roads and key bridges would close if hurricane winds exceeded certain speeds.
As authorities from Washington to Boston prepared for ferocious winds, torrential rain and flooding, major airlines advised passengers to reconsider travel plans.
The three major New York-area airports said late on Friday they would
halt domestic and overseas arrivals at noon EDT (1600 GMT) on Saturday.
Departures were still planned until further notice, according to the
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Big airlines had already canceled much of their New York schedules into Monday.
"We are laying in supplies, things like tarps to throw over computers
and electronics should we shut down the terminals, and plywood so that
if there is any glass damage we can move quickly to secure those areas,"
said Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American Airlines, a unit of AMR
The Northeast is the most congested area of US air space, with John F.
Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York and Newark in New Jersey
handling nearly 100 million domestic and international passengers
Disruptions in the region ripple throughout the country and affect international flights.
The worst of the storm is expected to hit the mid-Atlantic region late
on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Repositioning planes again and
restarting service can take time and will lead to more cancellations and
delays on Monday.
Most carriers were expected to shut down operations for about 24 hours, airlines and transportation officials said.
The online airline tracking service Flightaware.com said carriers
canceled 460 flights on Friday, 2,800 on Saturday and more than 4,700 on
Delta Air Lines canceled 1,300 flights from Saturday through Monday.
This included all operations on Sunday in New York and at Newark.
American Airlines will halt New York-area operations from midmorning
Saturday through Sunday. It has also canceled 265 flights at the three
Washington-area airports on Saturday and more were planned for Sunday.
JetBlue Airways, based at JFK, scrapped nearly 900 flights through Monday.
United Airlines, the world's biggest airline that has eastern hubs at Washington Dulles and Newark, will cancel 2,300 flights.
US Airways, which has a heavy East Coast presence at Washington,
Philadelphia and LaGuardia, will cancel 311 flights on Saturday and
another 1,000 on Sunday.
The magnitude of the air travel disruption from Irene is more commonly
seen during winter snowstorms and not the busy summer, the most
lucrative period for air travel.
Helane Becker, an analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co, estimated the
impact to airlines from the storm could range from $5 million if it
missed the coast, to $30 million to $40 million should there be a direct
Federal Aviation Authority Administrator Randy Babbitt, at the Boeing
flightline in Everett, Washington, for a ceremony marking commercial
certification of the Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner, said the agency had teams
along the East Coast and should be "up and running" quickly in the
event of control tower shutdowns.
The FAA said in a statement it was working to protect air traffic towers
and other facilities and equipment from any storm damage. Enabling
flights to resume quickly is also critical to support any disaster
Long Island MacArthur Airport on the Atlantic coast in New York is
taking "every precaution," Commissioner of Aviation Teresa Rizzuto said.
The Arca Airline stock index closed up 1.6 percent on Friday, in line with the broader market.
Airline travelers had few alternatives with Amtrak also planning to
scale back Northeast rail service on Saturday and halt it completely on
New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey rapid transit systems planned to close for the weekend.