Holiday travel shifts to the car

Not as many will fly this Thanksgiving

many will stay home

A chauffeured limo, anyone?

November 17, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Fewer Americans will be traveling during the Thanksgiving holiday period that starts Tuesday compared with last year, but that won't mean that the ones who do will have an easier time.

A total of 34.6 million Americans are expected to travel 50 miles or more by car, bus, rail and airline this Thanksgiving period - a figure that's down about 6 percent from last year, according to AAA.

More people are staying home or closer to home, but if they do travel, industry experts said, they will likely forgo long waits at airports in favor of buses, trains or their own automobiles. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and Monday's crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York will keep people away from the skies, experts said.

"Eighty-seven percent of the total traveling public this year will be driving," said Myra Wieman, AAA Mid-Atlantic's spokeswoman. "That is the highest percentage AAA ever recorded in a Thanksgiving holiday survey. Last year it was 83 percent."

AAA estimates that 610,213 Marylanders will take to the roads this year, down 1.1 percent from last year.

Air travel will likely take the biggest hit this Thanksgiving holiday. AAA's survey said the number of Americans traveling by airplane, train, or bus will fall 27 percent, but most of that drop will occur in the airline industry, Wieman said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said total passenger load for the industry will be down by 25 percent to 30 percent. And airline flights and seats will be down 20 percent, due to flight cutbacks by the airlines, he said.

"So it may not be as tremendously crowded as last year," Stempler said. "But the negative thing is that, for a lot of people coming into the airline system, it'll be the first time flying since Sept. 11. Even though the [passenger] loads might be less, the delays and lines will be much greater, so people will need to allot more time" for waits at airports.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport expects Wednesday to be its busiest departure day, with more than 66,000 people using the airport. For the seven-day period beginning Tuesday and ending Monday, Nov. 26, BWI Airport expects 377,000 passengers to fly from its terminals, a decline of 8 percent from the comparable period last year.

Travelers' aversion to flying this holiday season translates into opportunity for ground transportation. So far, business has been brisk at two major U.S. transportation companies - Greyhound and Amtrak.

"We've seen an increase of 20 percent in our advanced purchase tickets and a 9 percent increase in long-haul trips," said Jamille Bradfield of Greyhound Lines Inc. Last year, the bus company carried 800,000 people over the six-day holiday period, but Bradfield declined to say if the company would match that figure this year.

Amtrak is adding 75,000 seats nationwide - 10,000 more seats than were added last year - and 40 extra trains in the Northeast corridor, according to spokeswoman Karen Dunn. Amtrak's big change in the holiday week, Dunn said, is the switch to an all-reserve service "to alleviate overcrowding that we see during the Thanksgiving period." The all-reserve period will last from Tuesday to the Monday after Thanksgiving.

"We encourage people to make their reservations early, and you have to have a reservation and a ticket to board a train," Dunn said. "We're getting ready for anything, really, and anticipating what may be our busiest holiday season ever."

Another ground-transportation company that has seen business pick up since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is Carey International Inc., the world's largest chauffeured vehicle company.

In the wake of the attacks, the company made 640 trips for customers stranded by grounded flights. Soon afterward, the company launched a "City to City" program and is promoting its vehicle services as "a better way to go home for Thanksgiving."

"We realized there was a need for this type of service ... and then as we looked to Thanksgiving, we realized there was an opportunity there," said Joan Berkery, a Carey spokeswoman. "We've definitely noticed a good response; we've been booking pretty steadily since we launched Oct. 1."

Carey's all-inclusive one-way rate from Baltimore to New York is $513 for a vehicle that comfortably seats three passengers.

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