Share this article

print logo

Outlook for travel: crowded Airports brace for busiest period of year; drivers face soaring gas prices on Thanksgiving trips

If you're getting on a plane in the next several days, you should expect to have plenty of company -- 27 million traveling companions.

Highways and byways also will be crowded as more than 38 million Americans hit the road to visit family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Gas prices are way up from a year ago, and there will undoubtedly be chaos at the airport, but that's not stopping people from following through with their travel plans," said Wally Smith, vice president of AAA Western and Central New York.

The Thanksgiving travel period, which officially runs from Wednesday through Monday, has the potential to bring out the worst in domestic air travel.

Record passenger counts, on top of already congested air routes and tricky late-fall weather, added up to delays and cancellations as early as last weekend.

Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration said poor weather was delaying flights bound for New York's LaGuardia International Airport and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport by more than an hour. A disruption in radio communications delayed flights in and out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for as much as an hour. Airport spokesman Ken Capps said the problem was repaired in about 30 minutes.

In last week's announcement that some military airspace would be opened to commercial flights to reduce sky-high congestion, President Bush referred to the holiday travel period as the "season of dread" for many travelers.

"I think you should head to the airport assuming you'll face some level of delay and be prepared to deal with it," Smith said.

Paul and Connie Wexner, of Pittsford, are among those whose patience will be tried as they head home for the holidays. The couple made the drive from the Rochester suburb to take advantage of lower air fares and a faster connection, but arrived Monday afternoon at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga to learn their flight to Newark, N.J., had been canceled.

"They've got us rebooked on a later flight, so we'll get there eventually," Paul Wexner said. "The whole point of flying out [Monday] was to avoid a problem."

According to Orbitz.com, the five busiest U.S. airports this week will be Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles International, Denver International, New York's LaGuardia and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International.

The federal Transportation Security Administration at the Buffalo Niagara airport is bracing for peak days on which more than 10,000 travelers will be passing through its checkpoints.

"We had a dress rehearsal during the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday in October. It was just crazy in here," said Brett O'Neill, the TSA's Buffalo spokesman.

Over the seven-day period from Oct. 7 through 13, 63,212 passengers flew out of the Buffalo Niagara airport, setting a record for a single week and another for a single day -- 10,162 on Oct. 9. Last year, 57,892 passengers flew out during the U.S. Thanksgiving week.

C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said high volume has become the "new normal" at the Buffalo Niagara airport. During the week of Oct. 14, which would be considered a typical, nonholiday week, 60,233 passengers flew out.

"We're ahead of the national averages and beating our own forecasts for 2007. It wouldn't be surprising if we surpass 10,000 [on a few days] this week," Hartmayer said.

Over the 12-day travel period that began Friday, about 27 million people are expected to fly on U.S. airlines, an increase of 4 percent from last year, according to the Air Transport Association. On each of the busiest days -- Wednesday, Sunday and next Monday -- the number of passengers is expected to exceed 2.5 million, the Washington-based group said.

Last year, the Monday after Thanksgiving recorded the highest passenger count for the Buffalo Niagara airport as business fliers joined returning leisure travelers.

The TSA has ramped up its checkpoint staff by 15 percent to handle the extra volume at the Buffalo Niagara airport and is keeping its fingers crossed that it can snake the security lines tightly enough so travelers will not have to wait outside the building.

"We haven't had to queue them all the way out the door, but it might come to that if there's no place else to put them," O'Neill said.

The TSA representative said passengers can help keep the long lines moving by being prepared to pass through the checkpoint.

"Check-in online and get your boarding pass and seat assignment before coming to the airport. Be inside the terminal no less than two hours ahead of your flight. And have your ID and tickets out and ready," O'Neill said.

He also reminded travelers to observe the TSA's "3-1-1" policy regarding liquids and gels in carry-on luggage: three-ounce bottles or less; one quart-sized clear plastic bag; one bag per passenger.

"If you've got more than three ounces, or three ounces in a larger container, we're going to take it away from you," O'Neill said.

To make any delays less stressful, fliers also are urged to pack a cell phone and charger, "800" numbers for their airlines to avoid long ticket counter waits if they need to book an alternative flight, prescription drugs, snacks and some kind of personal entertainment item, such as a good book or an MP3 player.

Those choosing to drive to their holiday destination will have to open their wallets a lot wider than last Thanksgiving. According to AAA, regular, unleaded gas now averages $3.26 a gallon in Western New York -- a 35.6 percent leap from a year ago.

"If your vehicle has a 15-gallon tank, you're paying $13 more to fill up than a year ago," said the AAA's Smith. "For Thanksgiving, that doesn't seem to be stopping people from traveling, but if the price remains well above $3 a gallon, we're probably going to see some driving behaviors change."

Associated Press reports contributed to this story.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment