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Little Drop-Off Seen in Memorial Day Travel

May 23, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla and Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writers

A new terrorism security warning and fear of SARS will barely dampen the traveling spirits of millions of Southern Californians planning getaways this long Memorial Day weekend, transportation analysts said Thursday.

Officials at the Auto Club of Southern California have predicted only a slight drop in the number of Southern Californians flying or driving this weekend, and said it might even be negligible. As on past holidays, more than 80% of people traveling -- including 2.4 million Southern Californians -- will drive instead of fly.

"Generally speaking, on a three-day weekend like this, the big exodus starts even tonight," said Marie Montgomery, an Auto Club spokeswoman. "If you wait until tomorrow afternoon, you're going to hit a lot of traffic."

The national AAA said that the nation's orange alert level isn't likely to dissuade people from traveling, since many made their Memorial Day plans in March, when security was elevated during the invasion of Iraq. It predicted that 29.4 million people would be on the roads nationwide, a slight increase from 29.3 million last year.

Los Angeles International Airport, however, issued a statement Thursday predicting that the volume of holiday traffic might be slightly affected by lingering concerns over travel to and from Asian countries affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome. It also could be affected by the 7% decrease in flight schedules since last summer, a result of the industry's financial trouble.

Still, huge holiday crowds are predicted.

At Ontario International Airport, passenger volume is expected to be double the normal average of 19,000 per day, beginning today, said spokeswoman Maria Fermin.

"It will be crowded, but it usually flows pretty smooth here," she said.

Those who choose to drive this weekend can expect, not only crowds, but a heightened law enforcement presence.

In response to the anticipated traffic, the California Highway Patrol has deemed the long weekend a "maximum enforcement period" and will devote 80% of its officers to the roads. They will look for drunk and aggressive drivers, as well as speeders.

This year, as part of a new aggressive statewide initiative, they also will focus on drivers without seat belts.

"We're trying to get everyone to buckle up this weekend," said CHP spokeswoman Katrina Lundgren.

Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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