Flying home this Thanksgiving? There are two things experts say are essential to bring: patience and a sense of humor.
Planes are expected to be fuller, prices higher, and security lines longer than ever.
The good news is that means some major airlines are finally turning a profit in the post-9/11 world. The bad news is passengers are paying for it with their time and comfort.
"It's a very strong travel season. We're looking at some of the highest load factors we've ever seen at one of the busiest times of the year," says Darryl Jenkins, an aviation expert in Marshall, Va. "Go to the airport early, and go with excessive amounts of humor."
Load factor is aviation jargon for the percentage of seats occupied by paying customers. Usually, 65 to 75 percent of seats are filled, so it wasn't unusual in the past to expect that center seat to be empty so you could spread out a bit and relax – but no more.
This summer load factors were 90 to 100 percent, and that's where they're expected to stay this holiday season. The reason is major airlines have cut back on the number of planes flying so they can increase the amount of money they make on each one that goes aloft.
A recent scientific poll for Expedia.com also found that of people who plan to travel by air this holiday, 80 percent plan to travel as much or more than last year. So, to that full center seat add winter coats and presents for your mother, and you'll be prepared for what to expect: discomfort and inflexibility. Experts say if you're late to the airport, unlike in the old days, don't expect to be able to hop on the next flight.
"If you think, 'Oh, there are 10 flights a day to New York, I'll just get on the next one,' the likelihood of that happening is much, much less now," says Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch, a quarterly report on the travel industry, based in San Francisco. "That can really botch a trip if it's only three days, so I would say always err on the side of being early and just hanging out at the airport."
Then, of course, there are those vaunted Transportation Security Administration security checks – the other major reason experts are urging travelers to get to the airport as early as possible. During the holidays a lot of people fly who usually don't. So many may be confused about what the TSA will and will not allow on board.
For instance, did you know that some liquids and gels are now allowed? But they have to be in three-ounce containers inside quart-sized sealable baggies, not gallon- or a sandwich-sized. All lighters are banned, but you can bring on four books of matches. TSA's website, at www.tsa.gov, details these rules and is a must-see for anyone who hasn't flown in recent months.
"To make it more understandable to people we've launched a campaign called 3-1-1," says Ellen Howe, a TSA spokeswoman. "It's a reminder of three ounces or less, one quart-sized bag, one bag per traveler, and that bag needs to be pulled out of your carry-on and placed into the bin."
But even with all of the efforts the TSA is making to ensure passengers are informed and its employees are abreast of the current requirements, experts across the board say there's still too much inconsistency.
"You go there one day and one thing is OK, and then the next day you're told that is no longer OK," says Mr. Jenkins. "That's the biggest problem we have with the airlines, is that nobody knows what's kosher."
Knowing what's kosher is crucial because just a few seconds of delay per passenger can add up to very long lines with delays stretching as many as two hours.
"A delay of 10 seconds per passenger, in fact, could back up the line to the point where people could start to miss their flights," says Mike Callinan, president of Productivity Apex Inc. in Orlando, Fla., which did an analysis for the Orlando International Airport.
Some analysts contend that those wait lines and the hassle of security could have been greatly reduced if the TSA had been more efficient in getting the Registered Traveler and Secure Flight programs up across the country. The Registered Traveler program is designed to speed frequent fliers through the screening process once they've volunteered biometric and background information and paid a fee to a government-approved private company. So far, only the airport in Orlando is operating a pilot program, although 13 others have applied to run such programs.
The other program, Secure Flight, is designed to simplify the manner in which passenger names are checked against the federal government's Terror Watch List. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the program has been scrapped and sent back to the drawing board because of privacy concerns.
The TSA's Ms. Howe defends the decision, saying, "We'd rather get it right than fast." And some travel experts agree. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., says the current screening system needs to be improved before any new layers are added.
"If you're going to put new processes on top of things that aren't yet operating at an efficient or proficient level, then you can actually complicate matters, and customer service can suffer more," he says.