Smooth Holiday Travel Bewilders but Delights

Travelers at Reagan National airport, above and at right, wait near baggage claim. About 2 million people will have passed through National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports by the end of the 11-day Thanksgiving travel period, officials said.
Travelers at Reagan National airport, above and at right, wait near baggage claim. About 2 million people will have passed through National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports by the end of the 11-day Thanksgiving travel period, officials said. (Photos By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Bill Brubaker and Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 26, 2007

It ain't over till it's over, but with one day to go in the Thanksgiving travel period, the predicted nightmare scenario aloft and aground was something of a turkey yesterday.

"I feel like a fool," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend said, recalling a news release he wrote early last week predicting that things would get crazy for travelers yesterday, especially with a forecast of heavy afternoon rain. "I predicted trouble for Sunday, but there doesn't appear to be any. And it's the heaviest travel day of the whole year."

Traffic picked up on Washington area highways in late afternoon, and Dulles International Airport reported some brief delays, but smooth travel conditions prevailed in the morning and afternoon, in part because the early rain never materialized, Townsend said.

"But it was also because more and more people are changing their travel habits and thinking ahead to avoid the crunch periods like the Sunday after Thanksgiving," he said. "My in-laws left Saturday on a 6 a.m. flight to Huntsville, Alabama. We left our house at 4:10 a.m. because they didn't want to deal with the airport crowds and delays."

This year's 11-day Thanksgiving travel period began Friday, Nov. 16, and ends today, when an estimated 210,000 travelers will pass through the Washington area's three main airports, officials said.

At Dulles, officials said yesterday would be the busiest day, with 91,000 passengers. At Reagan National Airport, Nov. 16 was estimated to be the busiest with 70,000 passengers. All told, about 2 million people will have passed through National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports by the end of today, officials said. Today's crush will include an estimated 65,000 passengers at BWI, 86,000 at Dulles and 59,000 at National.

At National yesterday, travelers said they were shocked at the orderliness. Michael Sabel, 40, his wife, Annie, 38, and their son Jack, 2, of the District breezed in from Charleston, S.C., without a hitch -- their bags were even waiting for them. "It's bizarre," Michael Sabel said. "The planes were full, but there were no lines anywhere."

But this is air travel, so at least some people suffered. Anne Marie Brogan, 21, and her sister Mary Pat Brogan, 18, of Silver Spring were taxiing on a Chicago-bound jet at National when an engine acted up. They had to return to the gate and recheck their bags. "We are fine about it," said Anne Marie, a University of Notre Dame senior. "A lot of other people were disgruntled. But we know we will get there eventually."

Late last night, the Federal Aviation Administration said flights from National headed for Atlanta would be held until midnight or later because of weather and low visibility at the Georgia airport.

A few motorists reported congestion at times on Interstate 95 in Virginia, but late last night, traffic cameras at regional hot spots showed smooth sailing.

At Union Station yesterday afternoon, the departure and arrival screens for Amtrak trains flashed "On Time," boarding lines moved quickly and travelers reported packed but not overcrowded trains.

Rebecca Durvin, 25, of Gaithersburg strolled off her train from Richmond and into Union Station with the pace of a browsing shopper. She said the only real trouble she had was at Richmond's station before she boarded her 10 a.m. train. "You didn't have any elbow room," said Durvin, a communications specialist with the National Electrical Benefit Fund.

Rachel Daggy, 18, a freshman at American University, was expecting yesterday's train ride to be just as jammed as Wednesday's. But her train to Washington from Newport News, Va., was light on passengers the whole way up. "There were actual seats," she said.

AAA's Townsend, meanwhile, said his predictions of doom and gloom were, at best, premature. "I don't like doing press releases based on weather forecasts," he said. "It's like talking about the Second Coming. Nobody knows the day or the hour."

Nevertheless, as of midnight, rain had spread as far north as Dulles and it remained possible that wet weather could delay travelers today.

Staff writers Martin Weil and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.


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