Holiday travel is back as economy revives

Despite new terror alerts and heightened airport security, experts foresee big total turnout this weekend.

Winnie Mitchell hasn't seen her family in two years - the last time her son could afford a $400 airplane ticket from Boston to Salt Lake City. "He is a cars salesman and the economy was bad," says Ms. Mitchell, who has long retired from her factory job making eyeglass cases in Lynn, Mass.

As she eagerly awaited her Delta flight heading West this week, a smile spread across her face. "I'm real excited to see everybody, and all my grandchildren."

Americans are recapturing a sense of wanderlust. Across the country, officials predict that an improving economy and a growing confidence in the nation's security could make this Thanksgiving weekend the most traveled holiday season since the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) expects 36 million people to take to the nation's highways, railways, and skies, traveling 50 miles or more from their homes throughout the weekend - the highest volume in two years.

"People are feeling pretty good about the economy and traveling," says Justin McNaull, an AAA spokesman in Washington, D.C. "We've had a period of relative peace and safety."

Even though the Department of Homeland Security has warned passengers to be vigilant, many travelers have felt safer, making it that much easier to book a flight or pack up the Suburban.

Ms. Mitchell was one of 75,000 to 80,000 passengers expected to fly through Logan International Airport the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year. "We're expecting long lines," says Phil Orlandella, director of media relations at Logan airport.

At Washington Dulles Airport, toddlers petted a bomb-sniffing spaniel, while students, jet-setters, businessmen, and suburban families lined up for security inspection. By 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, the United counter was crowded, and security was flowing smoothly.

The scene was dramatically different from Sept. 16, 2001, the first time Michael Dobbel flew after the terror attacks. "It wasn't flying that scared me, but the terminals," he says. "They were dead quiet and eerie, and there was no music because the PA was kept open for emergency announcements."

AAA predicted that 4.6 million people, or 13 percent of travelers, would fly - up 1 percent from 2002. But the numbers are still 10 to 15 percent lower than pre-9/11 passenger traffic. In fact, most travelers this week will be on the road. AAA estimates that 86 percent of holiday travelers will reach their destination by car, despite a national average gas price of $1.51 per gallon - a 9 percent increase over last year.

TAKE Joel Gardner. He was giving his silky Yorkshire terrier a breather at the Virginia Visitor Center on I-85 just north of the Carolina border, en route to visit his new granddaughter in Newport News, Va. "This will be the first time I see her," says Mr. Gardner, a biological-filter engineer from Mobile, Ala. "And I don't have much farther to go."

This is his first major road trip since 9/11, and he says he still has reservations. "I won't fly to New York or California," he says, "and the only places outside the country where I'll go on vacation is South America or the Bahamas."

Many people also opted to travel by train. Amtrak was expected to carry up to 110,000 passengers nationwide on Wednesday alone - 70 percent more than usual. The company has added 70 extra trains for the weekend.

Airports prepared for tighter security, but many passengers said that the hassles of traveling seemed less than the year before. According to Amy Ziff, the editor of an advice column for Travelocity.com, 55,000 Transportation Security Administration screeners monitored the nation's airports last year, compared with 47,000 this year.

"That's a substantial drop in the number of people, but they have a year of practice to get everything in a groove," Ms. Ziff says, "so I have faith in TSA to do what they say - aim to keep people in line for less than 10 minutes."

Still, some people's patience was being tested. At Boston's Logan Airport one day this week, cabs were double parked outside Terminal B by 6:55 a.m., and security lines were slow-moving. "Are you kidding me?" muttered one traveler, heading to the end of the line.

This is exactly the scenario that Lawrence Carr sought to avoid. "I tried to get a ticket for Tuesday, but everything was booked," he says, on his way from Boston to visit his mother in Wisconsin.

He expected delays - due to good weather and cheap airfares - and arrived at Logan at 7 a.m., almost four hours before his flight was to depart. "I deliberately tried to avoid this day."

But many saw the busy day as a confidence-builder, a major step toward an approximation of the way life was before 9/11. "Time heals everything - including the fear of travel," says Chris, a young pilot for Atlantic Coast Airlines, preparing to fly out of Dulles Airport.

David Antoine, too, was taking the longer view. "It seems like things have improved since last year," Mr. Antoine says, in a crowded O'Hare Airport lounge waiting for a flight to New York City. "I still don't feel totally safe. I don't know if I ever will again. It's one of those things you have to accept."

Patrik Jonsson in Washington, D.C., Amanda Paulson in Chicago, and Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report.

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