Travelers thankful it wasn't worse

Lines at the pump, lines at the airport, but they move along

November 26, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin and Gail Gibson | Jennifer McMenamin and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Getting there wasn't the only hard part this Thanksgiving weekend, holiday travelers found to no surprise yesterday.

Getting back proved just as complicated, with long lines at airport security checkpoints, bus terminal ticket counters and travel plaza restrooms.

For those taking to the highways, sometimes-heavy rain - a break in the region's nearly six-week autumn drought - worsened traffic delays and were blamed for dozens of mostly minor fender benders.

Even so, many said it was not as bad as they had feared.

"We were expecting traffic coming down, and we didn't get any at all," Helen Trajeda of New York City said during a stop at the Maryland House travel plaza on Interstate 95. "Today, we're keeping our fingers crossed - so far, so good. We expected much worse."

Although fewer people than usual were expected to travel this Thanksgiving, owing to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, motorists were projected to turn out in record numbers. Nationally, 87 percent of holiday travelers were expected to drive during the holiday period, 5 percent more than last year, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic's annual pre-Thanksgiving travel survey.

For many travelers at the Maryland House, the scene at the rest stop was crazier than the roadways.

Drivers circled, waiting for others to leave a space. Gas-pump lines sometimes stretched 12 deep, with plenty of drivers willing to pay 19 cents more per gallon for a spot in the shorter full-service queue. And hungry travelers fought through crowded fast-food (but not as fast as they wanted) restaurants.

"In here, it's chaos," Karen O'Connell of Hicksville, N.Y., said during a brief stop on her way home from Norfolk, Va., where her family gathered for Thanksgiving and her brother's wedding. "I usually travel Thanksgiving weekend, and this isn't as bad as I thought it would be."

Air travel at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was down 8 percent compared with Thanksgiving week last year, said Harriett Sagel, an airport spokeswoman. But about 68,000 people were expected to pass through BWI yesterday.

Overall, they faced few lengthy delays, even during the worst of the morning rush, Sagel said. By midday, security and ticketing lines moved so briskly that most passengers didn't even have to stand still.

"It was a lot less than I expected - I heard they were backed up to the international terminal," said Don Wangsa, 22, who was returning to Southern Adventist University near Nashville after Thanksgiving with his family in Rockville. Wangsa sailed through Southwest Airlines' ticketing line yesterday.

His trip home last week was slightly more cumbersome. "I think they checked me [at security] about five or six times," Wangsa said. "They even checked my shoes."

Many travelers who in previous years flew to Thanksgiving gatherings took to trains and buses this year - and not necessarily because of the terrorism "fear factor," said Myra Wieman, an AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman.

"A lot of people headed especially to Amtrak because it would be less of a hassle," she said. "They wouldn't have to worry about getting there hours and hours in advance, about the security checks and about the delays caused by any breach of security."

Still, thousands of Amtrak passengers put up with delays yesterday after a CSX Corp. freight train derailed 8 miles east of New York City, disrupting service from Boston to Washington. A 19-mile stretch of track from New York to New Rochelle, N.Y., was affected.

Delays between Boston and New York were a minimum of two hours last night. Passengers between New York and Washington faced average delays of about a half-hour.

Neither Amtrak nor Greyhound would estimate yesterday the number of Thanksgiving weekend riders. But Amtrak officials said reservation calls in the week before Thanksgiving were up 10 percent over last year - to about 100,000 calls a day. Internet reservations doubled, to 6,000 per day.

Trains running in and out of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station were full - in some cases, standing room only - through the weekend, said Charles L. Hite, an Amtrak customer service supervisor there. But required reservations for all trains kept the crowds manageable, to the welcome surprise of many travelers.

Susan Veenis of Baltimore was steeled for a sea of cars when she brought her daughter, Emily, to catch a return train to New York yesterday afternoon. Instead, her experience was hassle-free and she thought sympathetically of a cousin who was driving to Boston in yesterday's drizzle and rain.

Baltimore's Greyhound bus terminal had grown stuffy and clammy by early evening when Kimberly Cropper was impatiently waiting for one of 25 buses departing throughout the day for Manhattan. She and her brother had spent Thanksgiving with their family in Aberdeen and were working their way through two lines - one to pick up tickets ordered by phone, the other to board the bus.

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