U.S. takes steps to ease holiday flying

But are they enough? Travelers will probably still need patience with delays.

'Tis the season … for long lines, record delays, jampacked planes, lost luggage, and higher airfares.

Yes, the peak Thanksgiving travel season starts today. And everyone from President Bush to the intrepid baggage handlers has been gearing up to try to make traveling this holiday season pleasant.

Mr. Bush has ordered the military to open up restricted airspace to ease congestion in the busy Northeast corridor. He's ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to stop all nonessential work and focus solely on getting planes on and off the ground. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is opening up extra security lines and positioning more screeners. The airlines are also staffing up, adding self-check-in kiosks, and putting extra planes on standby.

Airports are going an extra holiday mile, too. Some, like Denver International, are even hiring musicians to fill the terminal with festive cheer. Others plan to hand out water and other goodies to travelers waiting in long lines.

But despite all the best efforts, some travel experts are warning that it may not be such a jolly travel season after all: The Air Transport Association estimates that a record 27 million people will be flying this holiday (that's 4 percent more than last year) and that planes will be 90 percent full (they're usually only 80 percent packed). In addition, rain is expected in the Northeast and snow out West.

"Weather is going to be the primary driver," says Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y. "And you can't change the weather."

Like many analysts, Mr. Mann applauds the effort to ease delays, but he's skeptical that it will have much impact. The reason: the aviation industry's systemic problems. Most airport tarmacs and runways are already at capacity. When delays kick in, it starts a ripple effect. That's exacerbated by a World War II-era air-traffic control system. The FAA estimates it will take almost a decade to upgrade to a global positioning system (GPS).

In the meantime, transportation officials are hoping that short-term efforts, such as opening up restricted military air space on the East Coast, will at least help.

"Just as some urban areas open up the shoulders of their highway to ease rush-hour commutes, opening these holiday rush lanes in the sky will give pilots additional options for flying around bad weather and speed traffic from New York airports," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said last week.

But many aviation analysts are dubious about its impact. "At best it won't hurt the situation, but at worst it's too cute by half," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "It appears to be misleading, more of a press-release thing than a substantive one."

Mr. Mitchell says that adding an extra highway in the sky won't help ease the real choke points, which are at the airports. But he does commend the airlines, airports, and federal government for all putting their senior people on call to safeguard against Thanksgiving meltdowns.

"That will help with the extra authority and resources, but it also reinforces the urgency throughout the whole aviation system," he says. "Although, it's also a little bit surprising that that hasn't always been the case during busy travel holidays."

And so, what's a weary traveler to do? First, check in, if possible, online from home.

Before leaving for the airport, passengers can also check to see if their flight is delayed. The FAA now tracks real-time delays at fly.faa.gov.

Travelers should arrive at the airport two hours ahead of their flight, even a domestic one. Travel light, just a carry-on if possible. An estimated 265,000 bags went missing in September alone, and more usually go astray when delays kick in.

Also, what passengers wear can make a big difference in getting through the security line smoothly. Slip-on shoes slip off easily. Belts, buckles, and other metallic accessories will have to come off. Bulky sweaters and jackets can also be cumbersome. Also, don't forget a quart-size baggie (if you want to carry on three ounces of any liquid).

It also helps to check the TSA's website for the latest list of what's prohibited and what's not. It does change. For instance, small portable lighters are now allowed.

And finally, aviation experts say it's important to try to just keep smiling, despite the hassles. "And we'll wish for good weather," says Mann.

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