Gee, the traffic is terrific Traditional crunch on Thanksgiving eve now almost fills week

November 27, 1997|By Neal Thompson and Brenda J. Buote | Neal Thompson and Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Looking exhausted already, Paul Tobin sat on a bench yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, staring at the gray-carpeted floor, in the midst of what transportation experts might call an "intermodal" travel day.

Tobin, a shipping consultant from Taylors Island in Dorchester County, had just finished working on a cement-carrying ship in Sturgeon's Bay, Wis., caught a 6 a.m. flight back to BWI, and was waiting for his wife, four kids and dog to pick him up before driving 400 miles to visit his family in Boston.

"The New Jersey Turnpike is usually the worst," he sighed.

As anyone who joined yesterday's pre-Thanksgiving lemming-fest can attest, it's the nation's busiest travel day.

The day when more flights crisscross the atmosphere and more trains crisscross the landscape. A day of edgy anticipation when tempers grow short and toll plazas become parking lots.

Fortunately, work crews at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel finished their two months of construction 11 days ago, and drivers this weekend will be spared the logjams that have plugged the tunnel in recent weeks.

"That was part of the contract," said Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman Kerry Brandt. "We said we have to be open by Thanksgiving."

Still, the authority was expecting a 3 percent increase in traffic over last year at the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels and along Interstate 95, and a jump in average traffic volume of about 20,000 cars per day through Sunday.

Extra courtesy patrols were scheduled to be on the prowl for breakdowns.

At Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore, extra trains were running from early morning until about 11 p.m. to avoid congestion, said station manager Ken Wiedel.

"It's been busy all day," he said. "And we expect it to get busier as the day wears on."

Between 4,000 and 5,000 passengers were expected to move through the station yesterday. On a typical day, there are 3,000.

"To tell you the truth, I thought it would be more crowded," said Kelly Feller, 18, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who was heading to upstate New York for the weekend.

"I imagined something more like New York City's train station."

On benches and at small tables, strangers made polite conversation or passed time reading novels, newspapers and magazines.

The crowd had little effect on 5-year-old Reggie Johnson, who said he was at the station to "see the trains!"

Reggie's aunt, Sandra Johnson of Ashburton, had made a special trip to Canton to pick up the youngster before heading to Penn Station to meet an aunt who was traveling to Baltimore for the family's holiday feast.

"We've got people from New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina coming for Thanksgiving," said Johnson, who has planned an elaborate dinner of turkey, ham, fried chicken and barbecued ribs for 75 relatives and friends.

"It's a tradition in our family. We've been doing it every other year for the past six years. Thanksgiving's gotten so big that this year we had to rent a hall."

At BWI, the average passenger load of 37,000 soared yesterday and was expected to top 47,000.

"Everybody's going home to grandma's -- or grandma's coming to see them," said Bill Winkler, a first officer with Northwest Airlines, while waiting to fly some of those grandmas to Detroit.

Winkler said that for him, the day before Thanksgiving is smoother sailing than most. "There's probably less air traffic because the military's not up there today. They don't fly as much," he said.

The number of commercial flights in and out of East Coast airports rises from an average of 50,000 to more than 70,000 on the Friday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office on Long Island, N.Y.

So it's not just Wednesday anymore. Airlines report that people tired of the mad rush on Thanksgiving eve have begun leaving the previous Friday, or Monday, or even Thanksgiving Day.

"It's sort of spanning the whole week now," said BWI spokeswoman Juliet Wright. "And people are taking advantage of lower fares and actually traveling on Thanksgiving."

It wasn't so much Wednesday's crowds that concerned Mike Frendt yesterday. It was the flight back to Michigan.

More specifically, he was worried about jostling the person next to him on the plane because of the many trips to the tiny restroom he was expecting.

Frendt and 50 others from across the country had just finished 10 days of training at a technical recruiting company, Aerotek, in Baltimore. All 51 were crammed into the crowded bar at Terminal D yesterday afternoon, waiting for their flights home.

They had been there since 10: 30 a.m., taking group pictures, trading goodbye hugs and buying each other schooners of ale.

"It's going to be a long flight home," Frendt said.

Bar manager Sheila Tyler said the pre-Thanksgiving crowds are always "crazy."

"It'll be like this from now until we close tonight -- more beer, more wine, more food," said Tyler, pulling on rubber gloves to wash more glasses.

"But people are happy."

Some consider America's travel day -- the crowded airport bars, traffic-jammed toll booths and standing-room-only train stations -- as much a part of Thanksgiving as the bird itself.

Stuart Snyder of Baltimore, sitting at Tyler's bar, called the scene behind him a cross section of America.

"You can really find America at the airport at Thanksgiving," said Snyder, waiting for a flight to Tampa, Fla. -- the first time in 18 years he wouldn't be cooking the bird. "You really feel like an American here. It feels good."

As if on cue, a fellow bar patron hoisted a pint of beer and loudly exhorted the others: "Hey, let's all miss our flights and party all day."

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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