NEW YORK — With the end of the Christmas-New Year's holiday period approaching, the travel industry is preparing for what may be its biggest day on record this Sunday. Both rail and air travel are at high levels, and the airlines are carrying more passengers than ever before.
"If anything is noteworthy" about the holiday period so far, "it is the fact that you've generally had good weather," said Steven McGregor, a spokesman for American Airlines, based in Dallas. The only major exceptions to the good weather have been incidents of fog in St. Louis just before Christmas, and in Atlanta last Sunday night and Monday. Thousands of passengers were delayed.
"It was organized chaos," said Bill Jackson, a spokesman for Delta Airlines. "We put up hundreds of people in hotels." Delta is based at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, the nation's second-busiest. Chicago's O'Hare is No. 1, and it has been free of holiday weather problems so far.
"I think it's been uneventful, smooth-running," said William E. Jackman, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., a trade group based in Washington. "In years past, I can remember big snowstorms in Denver or Chicago, which can just about bring the whole system to a standstill."
The National Meteorological Center near Washington sees the southern Rockies as the only possible problem spot for Sunday. There may be some snow there, and it may spread from Denver eastward to Kansas City, Mo., late in the day on Sunday, according to Frank D. Hughes, chief of the medium-range forecast group.
The Air Transport Assn. estimates that the holiday period, from Dec. 19 to Jan. 4, will be the busiest ever for the airlines, with 21 million passengers carried, up from 19.5 million during the similar period last year. More than 1.75 million passengers are expected to fly this Sunday.
John Jacobsen, a spokesman for Amtrak, said the railroad passenger system has also done well.
"It's clearly been one of the busier Christmas holidays," Jacobsen said. "I've seen more sold-out trains this year over a year ago."
Precise figures for Amtrak's passenger traffic are not available yet, but Jacobsen said: "We appear to be carrying more people than we carried a year ago."
Reasons for Increase
He attributed the rise in rail ridership to more uncertainty in the economy than there was a year ago, less passenger confidence in the airlines because of mergers and bankruptcies and fewer special cut-rate air fares.
However, the Air Transport Assn. said the average airline fare is 10% lower than it was last year. And by some measures, business has never been better for the airlines.
The ATA estimates that as many as 415 million passengers will have traveled on the nation's airlines in 1986, more than ever.
And most carriers believe that the best--for them, if not for the passengers--is to come. "We expect an extremely good Sunday . . . at the end of the holiday period," said Bruce E. Hicks, a vice president for Continental Airlines in Houston.
He expects that the situation Sunday will be one where "the funnel is clogged. . . . You've got everybody that's going out over a longer period coming back on the same day."
Jackman of the Air Transport Assn. said: "We know that the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the biggest day ever for most of the major airlines, and it's expected that that (record) will be broken by this coming Sunday."