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.

SOURCE: Federal Aviation Administration/AP
Mary Knox Merrill/staff
Holiday rush: Passengers made their way through Boston’s Logan International Airport on Monday. The Transportation Security Administration has held training sessions to help workers deal with stressed-out travelers.

Heading home for the holidays? If you're flying, prepare for packed planes and plenty of hassles – and you might not get there at all if you miss or are bumped from a flight.

That's even though an estimated 2 million fewer people will take to the skies to reach their turkey dinner this Thanksgiving.

You'd think that would free up some space, but it won't. That's because there will also be 10 percent fewer flights than last year.

Still, the hard-to-forget travel horrors of holidays past have prompted the airlines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the Bush administration to do their best to ensure that this holiday doesn't turn into – in President Bush's words – "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

The TSA has opened special family travel lanes and held training sessions to help workers deal with stressed-out travelers, the airlines have put on extra staff, and the Bush administration has opened up military airspace to ease potential storm-related congestion.

So pack light and carry a good sense of humor: Everyone, at least, is trying.

"What's different and positive compared with the last couple of years is that the airline workforce is not as dispirited," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "So from a customer-service standpoint, it should be an overall better experience."

A key factor to ensuring that's the case is the weather. If a storm rolls into Chicago, New York, or Atlanta – key hubs that determine how well the entire US air-traffic control system works – there could be delays and cancellations aplenty.

Meteorologists at the Weather Channel are predicting that by Tuesday, a storm system will pick up steam in the Midwest: "A strengthening storm system over the Great Lakes will bring rain to the Ohio Valley and snow to the Great Lakes .... Snow will continue near the Great Lakes [Tuesday] into Wednesday before beginning to taper off," according to their website.

Wednesday, of course, is traditionally one of the heaviest travel days of the year. If the snow isn't too heavy, the airlines and air-traffic control system will probably be able to keep the system running fairly smoothly. That's thanks in part to the opened-up military airspace that will allow controllers to route planes around the storm.

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.)

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.

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