By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
President Bush trekked to the Transportation Department yesterday to outline the steps the White House was taking to curb air traffic hassles during the busy holiday travel season.
Citing long delays, lost bags and overbooked flights, the president jokingly asked, "Will it be 'It's a Wonderful Life,' or will it be 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'?"
Bush could easily have thrown in the depression-era saga "The Grapes of Wrath." According to industry reports, the souring economy is trimming holiday travel plans for tens of thousands of American families this year.
About 2 million fewer Americans will travel by air during the Thanksgiving holiday, according to the Air Transport Association, the airline trade association. The ATA said its forecast of 24 million air passengers this year represents the sharpest year-over-year decline in Thanksgiving travel in seven years.
"It's the fragile economy," said David A. Castelveter, an ATA spokesman. "When you see Citigroup lay off 50,000 people, people will have less spending power. Some of those people are travelers."
The AAA automobile club estimates that about 41 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, down 1.4 percent, or 600,000 people, from last year's level. A pullback would mark the fourth consecutive holiday this year to show a year-over-year decline in the number of travelers.
Although gas prices are falling, AAA expects fewer Americans to drive to distant holiday destinations this year. About 33.2 million Americans are expected to travel by car, down 1.2 percent from a year ago. The average price of regular gasoline is $2.07 per gallon nationally, 88 cents less than a month ago and $1.03 below the year-ago price.
AAA chief executive Robert L. Darbelnet blamed the poor state of the economy for presenting challenges to Americans looking to travel.
Use of other forms of travel is projected to increase this season -- AAA expects trips by train or bus to climb 5.8 percent, or by 180,000 travelers, from a year ago.
Travelers aren't likely to find many deals on air travel. Airfares are up 8 percent compared with a year ago, AAA says. For people who can still afford the tickets, analysts say they shouldn't expect significant delays.
Bush, in his Transportation Department speech yesterday, ordered the military to open its airspace to commercial airliners, creating so-called Thanksgiving express lanes to ease congestion in the skies. The military routes are located along the East Coast, in New Mexico and Nevada, over the Rockies, and in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Additionally, the president said the administration was coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration to make more staff available to speed check-in and boarding and to help passengers affected by delays and cancellations. Airlines are encouraging travelers to stay informed about schedule changes by signing up to receive electronic travel notifications.
Passengers will have one other big factor working in their favor against delays: fewer flights.
The ATA said it expects 24,000 flights per day, a 10 percent decrease from a year ago, during the 12-day travel period beginning Nov. 21. But the ATA said those flights will be packed. Planes are expected to be, on average, close to 90 percent full on the high-traffic days of Wednesday, Nov. 26, Sunday, Nov. 30, and Monday, Dec. 1.
Analysts caution that flight delays are highly dependent on weather conditions. Even minor storms at key airport hubs in New York or Chicago could tie up air traffic at airports throughout the country.
The smaller number of crowded planes could be a problem for passengers who miss their flight or who are bumped because seats are oversold.
"People have no options if they miss their flights," said Kate Hanni, an airline passenger rights advocate. "There's a high probability that many passengers are not going to make it home for the holidays."