On Thanksgiving Day, Suzanne Szabo and her husband, Brian Darling, were expecting the worst.
They arrived at Reagan National Airport an hour before their flight to Raleigh, N.C., and found 150 people in the security line. The Mount Pleasant couple pulled out their driver's licenses, removed their shoes and moved through the line, knowing every step. It took them 15 minutes to reach their gate.
Yesterday, the way back was even smoother. Szabo wore easy-to-slip-off shoes, and Darling passed through the metal detector without even a wave of the electric wand. The security check, said Darling, is "secondhand nature by now."
"This has to be the easiest Thanksgiving by far," he added.
More than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the intense airport security they spawned across the nation has become less of a hassle for travelers and more an unavoidable element. That was apparent yesterday as the holiday weekend ended and thousands flew back to the region on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
"It's a fact of life. I've gotten used to it," said Caroline Ladd, 18, a Georgetown University freshman, referring to the security check. She had just stepped off a flight from Milwaukee, where her parents live.
Across the region, it seemed most people -- whether traveling by plane, train or automobile -- had a relatively smooth time coming home. Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said there were no problems in the railroad's Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the most heavily traveled Amtrak route.
The region's major highways, for the most part, were not heavily clogged yesterday. About the only things that plagued Interstate 95, the scene of a tanker explosion early Wednesday that backed up traffic for miles, were football fans. A Redskins game at FedEx Field yesterday afternoon sent thousands of additional vehicles onto the Beltway just as holiday traffic was growing denser.
"There are the usual backups on 95 north of Baltimore at the tunnels and toll plazas, but -- I'm knocking on whatever I can find that's wooden -- all things considered, it's been pretty darned good," said David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
The number of Thanksgiving air travelers dropped after the Sept. 11 attacks but bounced back in 2003 and hit a record last year. Analysts predicted that this Thanksgiving would turn out to be more or less the same as last year. Courtney Prebich, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, reported smooth operations at National and Dulles International airports.
"We've got a lot of people going through, but everything is moving," she said. "We haven't seen traffic backed up at the access lanes, and there are plenty of parking spaces available. The security checkpoints were moving all day. I think people are spacing things out and planning a little better."
Prebich could not say how many travelers passed through the airports, but she said 1 million were expected in the 11-day holiday travel period that started Nov. 18.
Things were so quiet yesterday at National that by 4:45 p.m., 3,857 parking spaces were open. That's about three times the number of spaces empty on a typical weekday, when about 1,200 parking spaces are open.
Yesterday afternoon at Union Station, the electronic signboard showed every train, with the exception of the Silver Star from Miami, arriving on time. Some travelers, however, were not so fortunate.
Davia Palley, 18, a freshman at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, was waiting outside the station for a friend to pick her up. She had missed the train to Fredericksburg because her train from Hartford, Conn., where her parents live, was delayed.
"I'd rather have taken a plane," she said, struggling with four bags.
Motorists traveling north on I-95 during the afternoon found plenty of company but no other headaches, including from Mother Nature.
"We're having warm weather and no precipitation," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA.
"There are a lot of people out there, but it's moving," said Tom Moon, who was driving home to Baltimore after visiting relatives in West Virginia. Afraid to tempt fate, Moon's wife, Barbara, interjected. "We still have 95 to go -- we'll see," she said.
In Virginia, however, an accident on each side of Interstate 66 near the Route 234 bypass backed up traffic in both directions for several hours.
At a rest stop off I-95 near Laurel, Jennifer McCarthy was letting her 8-month-old mutt, Buster, stretch his legs.
"We have to stop every couple of hours to let him out," said McCarthy, who was driving with her fiance and Buster from Florida to New York. The three had set out at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and were hoping to reach their Staten Island home last night.
McCarthy, a 31-year-old computer software consultant, said the trip along the Eastern Seaboard had been relatively smooth, with one exception:
"Virginia was horrible," she said as Buster tugged at his leash and dived into piles of leaves. "Virginia was pretty much bumper to bumper. Everything else was fine."
That, however, was expected. The stretch of I-95 between Richmond and Washington grows more congested every day, Anderson said.
"The last trip I made was just on a normal day, and I crept from Quantico up to the Beltway," Anderson said. "The closer you get to the Washington area, the more congested it gets."
Despite the relatively easy driving conditions yesterday, Leroy Davis couldn't wait to get home. He and his wife were taking a break at the rest stop on their way back to New York from North Carolina -- and he knew exactly how much asphalt lay between them and home.
"Only 212 miles left," he said.