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With more fliers and fewer seats, holidays won't be that jolly

Airports anticipate the heaviest traffic since Sept. 11, 2001. Those who miss a flight may be shut out altogether.

November 23, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Holidays may not necessarily be the best times to experience air travel at its finest. As the weather turns mercurial and we stuff airports fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey, we are, statistically, more apt to get bumped from flights, take off late or lose our luggage.

This year's season promises to be more challenging than usual, chiefly because more of us are trying to cram into fewer seats. Travel demand is rising. Yet more than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sent the industry into a tailspin, and despite some added flights, overall air capacity is still down.

Fliers, prepare for delays.

"More people are going to be traveling this holiday season than at any time since Sept. 11," says Nico Melendez, spokesman in Los Angeles for the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security screeners. Adding to potential problems, the TSA has just cut 6,000 positions, on orders from Congress.

AAA's annual survey shows that this year, nearly 1% more Americans than last year will fly during the Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally the year's busiest period. (Car travel will be up even more, 2.5%, it forecasts.)

Although 1% may not seem like much, that translates into more than 1 million additional people scrambling for seats, says Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University in Kansas and coauthor of an annual report on airline performance. "That's noticeable," he says.

Especially when space is so scarce. Major U.S. airlines tracked by the Air Transport Assn. filled, on average, 74.3% of their seats through October -- about 1% more for this period than in 2000, a year when planes logged their highest occupancy since 1946. Many airplanes have been packed well above the average, of course. JetBlue's flights, for instance, averaged 85.5% full last month; in summer, the average was in the 90%-plus range.

That's good for airlines' bottom lines, but it's not always a picnic for passengers.

How severe is the crunch? Hyuk Park, senior analyst with Unisys R2A, an airline consulting firm in Hayward, Calif., estimates that more than three-quarters of the 17 United flights he has taken since Oct. 14 have been overbooked -- on one Sunday, by 30 seats, staff told passengers at the gate.

Meanwhile, Hotwire.com, a discount Internet travel seller, reports fewer seats on peak dates this holiday season and fares that are higher than last year. Orbitz.com says fares are up 9% for Thanksgiving and 12% for Christmas from last year.

What this means for the holiday traveler is that if your flight is canceled or you arrive late at the gate and miss the plane, you may not have many affordable options -- or any options at all. The next flight or even the next day's flights may be filled. So you may need to forget about getting to Grandma's house for Christmas.

If a snowstorm or another crisis cancels swarms of flights, you may face longer delays. During the August blackout that snarled air traffic on the East Coast, "there were people who just didn't get where they were going," says Terry Trippler, air traveler advocate for www.cheapseats.com.

You can't do anything about the weather, but you can minimize other holiday travel hang-ups. Some suggestions from the experts:

* Get to the airport early. "The days of getting to the airport 20 minutes before your flight ... and getting on are past," says the TSA's Melendez, especially on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the Sunday after. There are always lines.

Even LAX, which has lost traffic volume, advises passengers during the holidays to arrive at least two hours before takeoff, says airport spokesman Tom Winfrey.

The TSA hopes its recent hiring of 2,700 part-timers will mitigate the effects of losing thousands of full-time employees, but "I'm not going to tell you we expect zero problems because of the staff cutbacks," Melendez says. Stephen McHale, TSA's deputy administrator, told a U.S. Senate panel Nov. 5 that there could be longer lines at security checkpoints during the holidays this year.

One way to ensure you're at the airport on time is to book a package at a nearby hotel that includes a room, parking and a shuttle to the airport. These packages may total little more than the parking alone. A new Web site, www.parksleepfly.com, lists these deals.

* Use electronic check-in: If you haven't flown in the last year, you'll be surprised at how ubiquitous this technology is. Self-service kiosks, which let you confirm your seat and print out a boarding pass, are sprouting up at airports all over the U.S.

Electronic check-in, whether from your personal computer or an airport kiosk, saves time. "Give it a shot," Cheapseats' Trippler suggests. "That machine isn't going to bite." Log on to your airline's Internet site to see whether it offers this option.

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