Nicole Hopkins has beaten the holiday crush, but she takes little satisfaction from it.
The blue-jeaned mother of two meekly follows the instructions of an airport security officer as her bags clear a monstrous white scanning machine. There is no hint of relief as she and her children move to check in.
In truth, the San Francisco resident would rather be anywhere else. A year ago she might not have made the trip. But in those days after Sept. 11, it was her in-laws who traveled, coming up from Arizona. This time, it's her family's turn to fly for Thanksgiving, and now no nagging doubts will keep her away. "You know, [the children] have got their grandparents, and they've got to visit," she says.
Today, on what is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, America is again taking to the airways. Reversing last year's lows, forecasts show that holiday travel will be up across the board - from cars to buses, but particularly air travel.
It is a trend full of portent: a first test of the nation's new airport-security system and a rare bright spot in a year of bad news for airlines pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet for most Americans, the main significance lies in something more simple. It is another indication of how people are striking a balance between the caution of constant terror alerts and the desire to go home for mom's mashed potatoes and gravy.
"People are more alert," says Mantill Williams, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association, which recently released its yearly holiday travel forecast. "But they cherish time with family and friends. They aren't going to be intimidated."
The turnaround is not likely to return the travel industry to the record levels of the late 1990s. Air travel is expected to rise by only about 6 percent over last year. But this weekend will be the busiest travel period since Sept. 11, and observers say any rebound is a positive sign that suggests Americans are feeling more confident.
As Odessa Wiens waits for her baggage to tumble onto the conveyor belt at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, she expresses the slightest surprise at how smooth her trip from Oregon was. It's the first time she and her 1-1/2-year-old daughter have flown since Sept. 11.
"I feel safe," she says. "The security people took my daughter's dressing gown and hat off and even checked her teddy bear. They were very polite."
Her experience is a testament to how much things have changed. For months after Sept. 11, the question of convenience was nearly as pressing as security - particularly for parents. Singles with only hand luggage could make it through security with a minimum of hassle. But for those with baby chairs, strollers, and massive toy-filled suitcases, situations often became stickier.
"Those were the people that were affected the most," says Jeffrey DeKorte, travel adviser for MapQuest.com, which also released a travel forecast. "[Now,] it's an entirely different experience from a year ago, when people were wondering whether we could bring nail clippers or not."
In Boston, where the new federal screeners were first installed, it's as if a pall has lifted. Half of the hijackers boarded their planes here, Harvard University sophomore Camilo Becdach knows. Add that he is part Lebanese, and the prospect of flying out of Boston was long something he didn't relish.
But these days, he's looking forward to Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with a brother, an aunt, and his parents and grandparents. As for the flight? He's "not nervous at all."
Frank Gellott can see the difference. His lobster stand sits right next to the checkpoint for American Airlines. In one drawer, he still has more than 100 Swiss Army knives and laser pointers - gadgets that passengers gave him so they wouldn't have to throw them away. But where national guardsmen once intimidated with weapons and glances, passengers are now at ease.
"People are pretty much over [the fear of terror]," he says.
MapQuest's survey found that only 10 percent of those polled are worried about safety. By contrast, 33 percent of the people said the economy was hampering travel plans.
With the time needed for the new security measures, sometimes it's just as fast - and cheaper - to drive. That, more than anything connected to terrorism, is what is hurting air travel, experts say. "People used to be willing to pay a premium for time," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "Now, they're looking to other means for short- and midrange trips."
For longer jaunts, though, planes are still preferred. Even for more nervous fliers like Ms. Hopkins in San Francisco. Her husband can't make it to Arizona until Thanksgiving Day, and even though her daughter looks angelic with her ladybug backpack, a 1,500-mile drive was never going to happen. "I don't want to drive everywhere," she says.
• Christina McCarroll in Boston and Terry Costlow in Chicago contributed to this report.