Despite higher fares and the hassles of flying at busy times, millions of travelers are expected to queue up in the region's airports over the Christmas holiday period.
The crush begins Friday at Los Angeles International and other airports around Southern California, leading officials to urge travelers to arrive several hours early, pack light and make sure to leave unwrapped any holiday gifts, whether they are packed in carry-on bags or in checked luggage.
"We're going to be busy," said Sharon Diggs-Jackson, a spokeswoman for Long Beach Airport. "We're making plans to have alternative parking options, so we don't run out of parking."
At Burbank's Bob Hope Airport, many of Southwest Airlines' Saturday departures, including seven out of nine flights to Phoenix and all 11 flights to Las Vegas, are sold out. The airline, the airport's largest, expects twice as many travelers that day as normal, prompting officials to advise passengers to plan ahead.
In Orange County, John Wayne Airport expects about the same numbers as last Christmas. At LAX, 2 million passengers are expected from Friday through Jan. 2, up about 3% from a similar period last year. Unlike at many airports nationwide, airlines at LAX added flights this month, as the battle intensified for passengers on certain routes.
In the third week of December, carriers at LAX are offering 11,950 additional seats a day on international and domestic flights, up 5% over this time last year, according to an analysis of flight schedules by Official Airline Guide, a global fight information company. But officials don't expect all planes to leave full.
"Air fares are higher, largely because of fuel increases . . . and economists are sensing a slowing in the economy," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security at Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX. "While normally we see a correlation between seats and passenger traffic, we're going to discount it by about 40%."
On average, prices from LAX are running 10% higher this holiday season, while nationally fares are up 9%, according to John Rauser of Farecast.com.
About 225,000 people are expected to use LA/Ontario International Airport this holiday season, up 5% over last year.
Even as the number of passengers is expected to climb at Southern California airports, the number nationwide probably will remain about the same as during the holiday period of a year ago. The Air Transport Assn., an industry trade group, is forecasting that about 47 million people will fly internationally on U.S. airlines.
Under fire for the worst summer on record for delays and mishandled luggage, airlines are adding staff at ticket counters and installing extra self-service kiosks in terminals at many busy airports, including LAX. When flights are delayed, carriers hope to notify passengers up to 24 hours in advance. The federal Transportation Security Administration, which manages the nation's passenger screeners, suggested travelers visit www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/simplifly.shtm for tips.
Industry watchers cautioned that additional technology in airport terminals doesn't necessarily ease lines significantly during the holidays, when inexperienced travelers who prefer personalized service often patronize airports.
"These are the folks who don't feel comfortable booking it online and running their own boarding passes at home," said Robert Mann, an aviation analyst at R.W. Mann & Co. "They don't feel comfortable walking up to a kiosk" instead of a ticket counter.
To help with congestion in the skies, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters announced Wednesday that the FAA and Defense Department will open "holiday express lanes" in military airspace to accommodate flights in and out of Southern California from Friday through Jan. 2.
Airport officials said they hope the Christmas rush mimics Thanksgiving, when airport and airline operations in the Southland went more smoothly than anticipated, largely due to good weather. Last year, heavy storms across the Midwest in December forced carriers to cancel thousands of flights.
"We're hoping that this Thanksgiving was a dress rehearsal for year-end holiday travel," said LAX's Haney. "The wild card is weather in other parts of the country."