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Roads Take Brunt of Holiday Crunch

Transit: Most travelers choose driving over flying in post-attack world. Fewer hitches than expected are encountered at airports.


CHICAGO — On one of the busiest days of perhaps the most unnerving travel year, Louise Alvin stood in line Wednesday with tens of thousands of others at O'Hare International Airport, a concerned look on her face.

"Actually, I'm fine," the Chicago nurse said. "It's my dog. We used to fly quite a bit, and he knows something's different. He's nervous."

Indeed, her 3-year-old dachshund, William, didn't seem at all happy in his tiny cage, yelping his displeasure as armed guards patrolled, bomb-sniffing dogs sniffed and the lines crawled, albeit at a pace now considered acceptable since security was tightened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Airports across the country from Los Angeles to New York reported that Thanksgiving travel came off with fewer hitches than anticipated Wednesday, though not without a good bit of nervousness for some travelers.

The Travel Industry Assn. said the number of airline travelers nationwide would hit its lowest point for Thanksgiving weekend since records began in 1994. The Automobile Club of Southern California, the largest affiliate of the American Automobile Assn., projected a 27% drop in airline bookings nationwide compared to last year.

Many of the major airlines carried full loads Wednesday, but they had already scaled back flights by 20%. Car rentals were up by 10% or more nationwide, at least in part because air travel was down.

Charles Herrera was actually looking forward to joining the annual, unpleasant crush of cars on Interstate 5 on Wednesday traveling from Southern California to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving. He was happy the sport-utility vehicle he had rented in Los Feliz had a compact disc player and that he didn't have to fly.

"I don't want to be in a plane and deal with all that nervousness," Herrera said.

AAA predicted 34.6 million Americans would travel at least 50 miles from home during the Thanksgiving holiday, down 6% from last year.

With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and war in Afghanistan on the minds of many, as well as low gasoline prices across the country, 87% of all travelers were expected to drive, dealing yet another blow to struggling air carriers. In recent years, an average of about 80% of travelers made their journey by car. By Wednesday evening, many urban areas were experiencing traffic jams worse than usual for the day before Thanksgiving.

The revenue airlines pull in during the Thanksgiving holiday period is difficult to gauge, experts say, because so many factors come into play, from the routes the carriers fly to quirks in weather patterns. But, in general, most carriers earn considerably more than one-fourth of their income during the fourth quarter, which includes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The major carriers, which have been losing millions of dollars a day since the attacks, didn't count on major profits during the holiday.

Good weather across much of the nation--with the exception of the Northwest, where rainstorms caused air travel delays--and relatively small airport crowds made air travel surprisingly simple for many Wednesday.

"I'm surprised. Everything is going real smoothly," said Sol Rangel, 25, who left downtown at 11 a.m. and blazed to Los Angeles International Airport in 20 minutes, arriving two hours ahead of her Southwest Airlines flight to El Paso.

Numerous passengers at Southwest's counters were having baggage inspected by hand, while high-tech scanning machines were used sporadically.

"I'm willing to give up my search-and-seizure rights for my security," said Nicholas Mangini, 18, as a security guard with rubber gloves pawed through his green bag. The freshman at Loyola Marymount University, who was headed to a family gathering in Redwood City, said lines didn't daunt him and flying didn't scare him.

"I just have to live my life," Mangini said. "I can't let this thing scare me."

At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and on roads leading to it, crowds were minimal but picking up throughout the day.

Thoughts of American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed last week minutes after takeoff from JFK, were on the minds of many, even as they toted presents, pies and other holiday trappings onto flights.

"Allen asked me this morning: "Grandma, suppose an engine falls out of the airplane?' " said 46-year-old Vilma Row-Reid of Queens, N.Y., who was flying with 4-year-old Allen and her daughter-in-law to celebrate Thanksgiving with family in Fort Myers, Fla.

"I told him: 'No, Allen, no. It's not going to fall. No, it's not." Out of earshot, however, Row-Reid said: "Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Those people on the ground in Queens last week were in their houses when they were hit by a plane. It can happen anywhere."

All 260 of those on board Flight 587 and five others on the ground died in the crash.

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