Holiday travel volume looks steady, but Americans are staying close to the ground
Mike Norwood, a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., never intended to begin the Thanksgiving holiday with his parents in Washington as early as Tuesday. He had wanted to travel today.
But when he tried booking a train from Boston to Washington, he was told that all the trains were sold out, forcing him to leave a day early.
”I thought about flying,” Mr. Norwood said. ”But then my parents were uncomfortable with the latest plane crash and everything. I think they felt this would be safer.”
With the long Thanksgiving weekend approaching, Americans are traveling again, scrambling to join family and friends in distant places.
Evidence suggests that they are scrambling in almost in the same numbers — at least on the ground — as last year. That is a surprising development, travel industry officials said, given the convulsions caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the falling economy, rising unemployment and the added jolt last week of an American Airlines jet crash in Queens.
A survey by AAA, the former American Automobile Association, found that 34.6 million Americans planned to travel at least 50 miles from home for Thanksgiving, a drop of 6 percent from the 36.8 million of last year. Most of the decline is from a drop in air travel. Travel by car, bus and train remains relatively strong.
Industry officials said a decision by so many Americans to travel displayed a triumph of the spirit in setting aside fears of attacks and accidents in favor of spending more time with family and friends.
”One thing we’re finding is that going to war makes people feel good,” said Richard Copland, president and chief executive of the American Society of Travel Agents, an industry organization. ”There’s a sense that we’re accomplishing something. That, combined with the new airline security bill signed in Congress, is helping offset the fear factor and helping show the great resiliency of the American people.”
Although most of the largest airlines have reduced schedules 20 percent, air passengers this week, especially those flying on Wednesday and Sunday, two of the heaviest travel days of the year, are still quite likely to encounter circumstances that are already familiar: crowded planes, long lines to reach them, tighter security checks and stricter rules for carry-on luggage.
A spokesman for United Airlines, Joe Hopkins, said that the company was operating 23 percent fewer flights than this week a year ago but that the average load was about the same, 80 percent. A spokesman for American Airlines, Marty Heires, said American was operating 20 percent fewer flights. He declined to say at what load.
Many of the largest airports said as many as a one-fourth fewer passengers would pass through their terminals this holiday season.
Some airports are looking for ways to make the experience more enjoyable.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport announced today that 200 volunteers dressed in ”Holiday Helper” T-shirts would assist travelers and that new rocking chairs would be available for weary passengers.
At San Francisco International Airport, officials have reduced parking fees and offered travelers two hours of free parking if they spend $20 in the gift shops or restaurants.
Travel by car remains the overwhelmingly preferred mode of holiday transportation. About 87 percent of travelers are expected to take the car, the highest percentage AAA ever found in a survey and a slight drop, 1.6 percent, compared with the number of Thanksgiving motorists last year.
Officials at AAA said falling gasoline prices and the fear of flying were luring people onto the highways and keeping the travel industry relatively buoyant.
”Falling gasoline prices were the catalyst that helped spark the 1991 travel recovery following the gulf war,” Sandra Hughes, a vice president of AAA, said. ”We believe lower gas prices will provide a similar catalyst in the coming months.”
Amtrak officials said calls to their reservation centers all year had been running 10 percent ahead of 2000, a gain that has been at least sustained after the terrorist attacks.
A spokeswoman in Washington, Karina Van Veen, said the railroad had taken twice as many reservations nationwide over the first two weeks of the month, compared with the same period last year.
Amtrak has added 75,000 seats for peak travel days, Tuesday through Sunday, including 2,240 on trains from Union Station in Chicago. An Amtrak spokesman in Chicago, Kevin Johnson, said some Midwestern routes had sold out, including all trains on Tuesday and Wednesday from Chicago to St. Louis and all trains on Tuesday from Chicago to Pontiac, Mich., a route popular with students at colleges and universities in Michigan.
Sunday trains are expected to be just as crowded, with Amtrak already reporting sellouts from Chicago to the cities of St. Louis; Carbondale, Ill.; Detroit; and Pontiac and Port Huron, Mich.
”We’re preparing for a record breaker,” Mr. Johnson said.
Traveling by bus also appears to be more popular than it was last year. A spokeswoman for Greyhound, Kristin Parsley, said it was difficult to project the effects of Sept. 11 on ridership, because 95 percent of bus travelers buy tickets shortly before departure.
Since the attacks, Ms. Parsley said, Greyhound has had an increase in advanced bookings and in the number of travelers buying seats for trips of 1,000 miles and longer.
As a result, she said, Greyhound expects more riders than last Thanksgiving, when 800,000 passengers traveled from the Wednesday before to the Monday after.
Whatever the mode of travel, many passengers seem resigned to make the best of it.
Naomi Usher, 67, of San Antonio, a retired child care worker, was traveling through Houston today on her way to spend Thanksgiving with her sister in nearby Texas City.
”Normally,” Ms. Usher said, ”I would have taken the car or the plane. But since what happened, I’m taking the bus.”
It was not the hijackings that persuaded her but the crash last week.
”I just didn’t want them to not to check those planes,” Ms. Usher said, before vowing that her uneasiness would soon disappear.
”It’s just this one time,” she said of her first bus ride in 26 years. ”The next time I come down here, I’ll ride the plane. It was too soon after.” Autor: Michael Janofsky