The traditional Thanksgiving travel period, the busiest of the year at airports, bus depots, train stations and on the highways, came to a close last night and appeared to be the smoothest in years.
At National Airport, travelers pushed their way through concourses decorated with strings of white pinpoint Christmas lights, trundling their suitcases behind them to the accompaniment of holiday music. There, too, the midafternoon crowds were lighter than usual for a post-Thanksgiving Sunday, airline ticket agents and travelers said.
"This was really smooth," said Andrea Nordell, of Arlington, arriving back in Washington with her husband and children from a Thanksgiving trip to her relatives' home on Long Island. It was a trip she has made for the last 15 years, she said, but this year even New York City seemed easier than usual to get around in.
Bill Fosdick, an operations officer at Dulles International Airport, said traffic was lighter than expected for this time of the year. It seemed the same at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where Carlos Rece, airport operations manager, said the rush "came in spurts, lasting 10 to 15 minutes" and the crowd appeared to be no larger than last year's.
Spot checks with Delta, American and Eastern airlines showed that airplanes were leaving National nearly full and coming in the same way. At midafternoon, Eastern's chief ticket agent, Cameron Taylor Dill, took a practiced look at the crowd and said the lack of a post-Thanksgiving madhouse atmosphere was just a lull in the action.
"Tonight will be heavy," he predicted.
At Union Station, people lined up under the huge Christmas wreaths hanging on the front of the building to wait for taxis. Occasionally, the taxi coordinator bellowed out a destination such as "Capitol Hill!" and a few people stepped up quickly.
"I think people are probably scheduling themselves better, leaving earlier," said Marci Larson, Amtrak spokeswoman. "I was at Union Station on Monday and Tuesday and employees said it seemed busier than they recall. Usually, Wednesday and Sunday are the busiest days."
Amtrak, which normally runs 770 trains a week in the Northeast, added 90 trains and 587 coaches to handle the holiday traffic. So far, Larson said, records showed 525,000 passengers had tickets to travel by Amtrak from Nov. 20 through today, up from an average of 422,000 a week. Half of the increase was in the Northeast, she said.
The increase didn't translate into dollars for redcap Frank Smart.
"For me, Christmas is much busier because people stay longer and carry more stuff," he said, pointing to the small pieces of baggage travelers carried yesterday.
Meanwhile, the 38 members of the Ronald Lee James Choral Community Choir ran around the station doing last-minute shopping before hopping aboard a train and heading home to New Orleans. They come to the District every Thanksgiving to sing at a few area churches.
"We left New Orleans at 7 a.m. Thanksgiving morning and got here at 9 a.m. on Friday," said Theresa Sanders. "We had Thanksgiving dinner together on the train. No turkey. We had a choice of ribs or steak. We sang at two churches on Saturday and one this morning. Next year, we plan to fly."
The waiting room at the Trailways-Greyhound bus terminal wasn't very crowded. Most of the people were in the line at Gate 6, bound for New York and New England.
"I came to catch the four o'clock bus and when it came it was so crowded, we have to wait on another one," said Brenda Morris, sitting on a suitcase cuddling her 5-month-old baby, LaShawn.
But by 4:30 p.m., another bus had arrived and Morris kissed her mother goodbye and boarded.
It was pretty much the same story, whether you drove or rode. On Interstate 95 in Virginia and Maryland, traffic was brisk and there were no cataclysmic problems for the homeward-bound.
Virginia State Police reported no major problems between the District and Quantico by midafternoon. In Maryland, a four-mile tie-up north of Baltimore began in the northbound lanes at Hazelwood Avenue and extended to the Whitemarsh Boulevard exit, said Sgt. Amos Tracey, of the Maryland State Police. But, he added, that was a normal rush-hour pattern.