Runway rush expected for holidays
Air travelers will jam into crowded planes this holiday season, because of flight cuts by airlines battered by a year of volatile fuel costs and recessionary fears.
Oil prices dropped below $60 a barrel this week, but in July they reached a historic peak of $147 -- far above the level at which airlines say they can operate profitably.
So the carriers cut back on what they call capacity -- the number of flights connecting cities. They'll offer 10 percent fewer flights in the final three months of 2008, about 24,000 domestic departures each day, according to the Air Transport Association.
"Despite the expected decline in passengers this Thanksgiving, the first such decline in seven years, Thanksgiving remains the busiest travel time of the year for airlines," said James C. May, president and CEO of the trade group that represents airlines. "And make no mistake: the airports will be busy, and many flights will be 100 percent full."
Travelers could spend more time waiting in security lines, if trends from the past two years are any indication. Nationally, air travelers waited in line for 11 1⁄2 minutes before reaching a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint around Thanksgiving Day in 2007, up 21 seconds from 2006, according to Federal Aviation Administration data compiled by Gannett News Service.
At Pittsburgh International Airport, that wait was 8 minutes, down a few seconds from 2006.
Wait time increased by 75 percent in 2007 at airports in Fort Lauderdale and Charlotte, N.C., to 16 minutes and 12 minutes respectively, the data showed. Miami International posts the longest wait time, at 21 1⁄2 minutes.
The laws of supply and demand suggest fewer flights should mean higher fares. But U.S. airlines are doling out discounts for travelers willing to travel during off-peak hours and days, said Rich Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, a Web site that aggregates airline ticket search engines.
"Just a few short months ago, I wasn't expecting any deals," Seaney said. "But the entire world has changed, with the global economic crisis. Over the past two weeks, we've seen every major airline holding winter airfare sales."
No one can predict whether travelers will fly in big numbers through December.
"I think a lot of people are sitting on the fence. The economy has people pulling back," Seaney said. "With the price of gasoline falling, and the checked-bag fees going into effect, driving -- especially if you have a few people in the car -- may make more sense."
Travelers at Pittsburgh International have grown accustomed to minimal congestion. Number 35 in the country in terms of departures from commercial airports, traffic at Pittsburgh International declined 41 percent in the past five years, primarily because US Airways trimmed three-quarters of its capacity since 2003.
Airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said pre-Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh means lots of extra arrivals, rather than departures.
"The holiday for us gets under way Nov. 21 this year, with the Tuesday and Wednesday before the busiest days," Jenny said. "The Monday and Tuesday afterwards are also busy."
Deals on Pittsburgh-originating flights in early December and in January include round-trip flights to New York starting at $154, Jenny said, and one-way flights to Philadelphia and Chicago starting at $50. Information is available at www.flypittsburgh.com.
Congestion is a more serious problem around New York City's three airports, where only 60 percent to 65 percent of flights were on time in 2007, according to FlightStats, which tracks commercial airline performance. In the short term, the FAA might reopen military airspace, as it did during last year's holiday travel.
Longer-term congestion fixes are in the works. More direct flights would save time and fuel, but communities resist becoming a flight path, said Air Traffic Control Association president Peter F. Dumont. Charging "congestion pricing" for flights leaving at peak hours is another proposal.
Last year, the FAA imposed caps on the number of daily flights out of John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark-Liberty airports, and plans in January to auction some "slots" to airlines. The airlines have sued to stop that process, calling the caps "confiscation" of routes they developed at their expense.
Instead, the industry says the FAA should press ahead to upgrade its antiquated, air traffic control radar to a satellite-based system that could allow planes to safely fly in closer proximity to each other, and save fuel by allowing more direct routing, ascents and descents. But that will take billions of dollars -- from taxpayers as well as airlines -- to complete, and isn't expected to be in full force before 2025.
For some travelers, the best immediate solution is to avoid airports between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
"During the holidays, it's too crazy," said Al Sawchak, 53, of Murrysville, a business consultant who flies at least twice a month. "We'll probably drive to see my brother in Maryland, and maybe go up to New York City right before Christmas. The kids have never seen Rockefeller Center, the tree and the ice rink. But no, we won't be flying."Additional Information:
Air travel tips
• When shopping online for fares, don't forget most carriers charge for checked baggage. A fee chart can be found at www.farecompare.com .
• Those fees will prompt some passengers to try to slip aboard with oversized or extra luggage. Some airlines monitor security checkpoints to bust would-be scofflaws.
• Print your boarding pass as close to 24 hours in advance as possible. Even if you have to stop at ticketing kiosks before your flight, this should allow you to board earlier -- and find space in overhead storage bins.
• To avoid crowds, fly on the holiday itself. Avoid flying on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays generally.
• At the airport, look for color-coded 'self-select' security lanes, which allow savvy travelers to speed through the expert, or 'black diamond,' lane. Those requiring more time or assistance -- passengers with children, or those unfamiliar with security procedures -- are directed to a green 'family/special assistance' lane.
• Sign up yourself, and anyone meeting your flight, for automated status updates through your airline's Web site or through FlightStats.com .
• If you get stuck at an airport, check for alternate flights on other airlines and ask a ticketing agent to try to book you on one.
• If you will be delayed overnight, try to get a flight to a warm-weather city. You won't be competing with as many other stranded passengers the next morning, and are more likely to find a seat to your destination -- perhaps even the same day.
• If you're traveling with children, carry snacks and make sure game batteries are charged.
Sources: FareCompare.com; Transportation Security Administration
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