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Holiday Travelers, Brace Yourselves

_____ On the Web _____
Bureau of Transportation Statistics


By Dana Hedgpeth and Frank Swoboda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 18, 2000; Page E01

Travelers who finally make it over the river and through the woods this Thanksgiving holiday may wish they had never left home.

Americans will be flying in record numbers in an airline system plagued by delays and cancellations resulting from bad weather, overcrowded skies, poor labor relations and an air traffic control system struggling to keep up.

Underscoring the prospect of delays and cancellations, the Department of Transportation yesterday unveiled a Web site that allows airline passengers to scan the pattern of flight delays to give them a gambler's chance of learning the odds of making their trip. The site, www.bts.gov, will provide current and historical airport-to-airport, airline-by-airline data on delays and cancellations. Unlike much of the industry data issued by the department, the new Web site will offer travelers daily updated information.

Thanksgiving traditionally has been the biggest travel holiday of the year. Unlike the Christmas season, another busy holiday period, Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday and people often turn it into a long weekend.

The Air Transportation Association, which keeps track of such things, predicts that a record 20.46 million people will fly during the holiday period, which began yesterday and extends through Nov. 28.

Individual airlines are already warning passengers to get to the airports early and be prepared for delays in finding a parking space, checking luggage and getting through airport security.

Travelers who finally board a plane are not likely to find an empty seat next to them. The industry estimates that planes will be as much as 85 percent full, well above the normal average of slightly more than 70 percent. Those who want to avoid crowds should fly on Thanksgiving day, when planes will be only half full, according to ATA estimates.

New reservations or flight changes are by now probably impossible.

"I had one woman who came to me three weeks ago wanting to go to Fort Myers, Florida, for Thanksgiving for $200 round trip," said Mike Miller, a travel consultant at ACT Travel in the District. "That was out of the question. Everything was sold out. Even crazy connections were gone. There are barely full fares left. Things were all taken-even by Halloween."

A major problem facing the airlines this holiday season is labor unrest in one of the nation's most heavily unionized industries. Although none of the major airlines faces the threat of a strike during the Thanksgiving holiday, various unions at several major airlines are unhappy over the pace of contract negotiations, a situation that could lead to unofficial work slowdowns throughout the nation.

United Airlines, which faces some of the biggest potential labor problems, this week offered the 50,000 members of the International Association of Machinists union what amounts to a thinly veiled bribe of two weeks pay to keep them happy during the holiday period. The airline is in contract negotiations with the union, which represents mechanics, ramp workers and customer service agents.

But United, the nation's largest employee-owned corporation, also won a court order yesterday preventing the mechanics from carrying out a work slowdown as the Thanksgiving travel period got underway. The union has denied there are any organized slowdowns.

By midday, the airline said it had canceled 50 flights-44 for maintenance operations. The airline normally cancels 20 to 25 flights a day.

Last summer, United was forced to eliminate 20,000 flights because members of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents its 10,000 pilots, refused to work on their days off. The pilots have since agreed to a new contract.

During the holidays, the Association of Flight Attendants at United plans to hand out leaflets warning passengers of a campaign of selective disruptions if the airline fails to improve wages under a 10-year contract signed in 1996. This is less of a problem for the airline because the AFA is barred by federal labor law from taking any job actions and both the company and the union expect to work out a wage deal early next year once the machinists reach agreement with the mechanics.

Delta, Northwest and US Airways are also experiencing labor unrest with either pilots or mechanics. Union leaders at the three airlines are urging members not to take matters into their own hands through such actions as slowdowns or refusing to work overtime. None of the unions has the legal right to strike at this time.

The airlines will not be the only areas of congestion in the coming week. The National Safety Council estimates that 497 people will die on the highways between 6 p.m. Wednesday and 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26, as a result of the increased traffic. The good news is that the number of Thanksgiving holiday deaths on the highways has been slowly decreasing in recent years.

And Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad, is expecting a nearly 40 percent increase in passengers over the holidays. Amtrak expects to carry 580,000 passengers over the holiday week, compared with 420,000 in a normal week. The railroad is adding 45 trains and 65,000 additional seats.

But if people are traveling in record numbers over the holiday week, most of them are not staying in hotels, as is reflected in the Washington area.

Some large hotels in the District that cater to business travelers are expecting business to be slow during the holiday week. To attract customers, some hotels have cut their $200 nightly rates in half.

Other hotels in the city are using only a fraction of their staffs because they are barely running at 50 percent occupancy.

Along the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, many hotels are sold out-but only because there is a youth soccer tournament in Germantown the weekend after Thanksgiving.

"Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week is dead, and then look out. The leisure traveler starts piling in, starting Thursday," said Natalie Bal, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Frederick. Her 100-room hotel is almost booked for the Thanksgiving weekend.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company