Fewer fliers this Thanksgiving, but flights will still be packed
The airlines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Bush administration are taking steps for smoother traveling.
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But if the storm becomes heavier, think about packing a dinner and buying plenty of water once you get through security: You could end up sitting on the tarmac for one, two, or three hours – or even more. (Despite last year's Valentine's Day meltdown, when some planes sat on the tarmac for as many as seven hours, there are still no regulations that require airplanes to return to the terminal even if passengers are trapped for hours.)Skip to next paragraph
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Then, of course, there's the challenge of what to do if your flight is canceled. If it is, it may be well-nigh impossible to get home, at least in time for the pie.
That's because the airlines, which were stunned by soaring oil prices this summer, have cut back capacity to save money. Fewer planes are in the sky, and those that are will be packed.
"Make no mistake, the airports will be busy, and many flights will be 100 percent full," according to James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, the lobbying arm of the major carriers. This is despite the expected decline in the number of passengers traveling this Thanksgiving – "the first such decline in seven years," he says.
But the good news is that there could be less congestion on the tarmac and in the air-traffic control system.
"Because of the reduced demand and the airlines rolling back capacity, we probably won't see quite as bad congestion delays in the places that are historically bad," says Clint Oster, an aviation economist at Indiana University at Bloomington. "But during holiday times, the congestion is mostly a weather factor."
In aviation jargon, the term to describe how full a plane is is the "load factor." There's a direct relationship between the load factor and how much flexibility an airline has to get someone rebooked on another flight.
"They are inversely proportional: The higher the load factors, the lower the flexibility," says Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "If you cancel a flight or misconnect people, there just isn't the space to accommodate them."
But Mr. Mann adds: "Having decided to run their systems that full, one would hope they've designed fallback options to deal with the eventual irregularities. But we'll see when we read the headlines [after the holidays]."
Just in case they don't have fallback options, make sure to get to the airport as early as possible. And remember that good humor.