Holiday trip plans are put to the test

Thanksgiving: Marylanders as well as transportation providers are bracing for an expected rise in travelers this year.

November 26, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

John and Kirstie Lorsch sat on a Penn Station bench yesterday with their two young daughters, savoring the relative calm - certain to disappear today - as they awaited a train taking them to see relatives in Boston.

David and Elizabeth Green thought they, too, had planned a perfectly good Thanksgiving escape. That is, until an airline tried to tell them that their 3-year-old daughter had canceled the family's tickets to California in a phone call three weeks ago.

The Lorsches and Greens - one couple content, the other beside themselves - are among thousands of Marylanders navigating a holiday obstacle course this week. They are testing their planning and patience by heading for cars, trains and planes during a notoriously busy travel period as much a part of Thanksgiving as cranberry sauce.

With more travelers expected than a year ago, Amtrak dispatched extra trains for today, Baltimore-Washington International Airport added security checkpoint lines, and the Bay Bridge reopened all lanes.

But with so many people out at once, there were bound to be glitches. Transportation headaches are part of the holiday's lore, particularly on the viciously busy bookend travel days of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after.

"People kind of cringe but look forward to it," said John White, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which forecast that 36 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving this year.

The Greens will be among those masses, even after being told by United Airlines that their reservations to Oakland - scheduled for today - were canceled Nov. 6 by a "Yakira Green," the couple's 3-year-old daughter.

Elizabeth Green, a Baltimore lawyer, said she was incredulous when she learned of the cancellation while trying to lock in seat assignments for the family of five yesterday through an Internet booking site.

"I said, `You're kidding!' And then I said, `She's just 3!' She has never dialed a phone in her life, and it's not like United is on one of our speed dials," Green said.

Green said she believes United canceled the reservations in error. Airline spokeswoman Chris Nardella said she could not explain what happened but offered to accommodate the family, which was given new reservations so it can spend Thanksgiving with relatives as planned.

This will be the first Thanksgiving that air travelers will experience electronic screening of all checked baggage. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration began the practice Dec. 31.

Paul Malandrino Jr., federal security director at BWI, said he believes the airport has enough staff to handle the extra work and holiday crush.

The airport is predicting an 8 percent increase in passengers over last year from Nov. 21 through Dec. 1. Sunday is expected to be the busiest day, with today a close second.

"We have more screening lanes than last year, and TSA is sending us more staff to meet that need," Malandrino said.

Passengers are being advised to arrive two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.

The weather was not expected to be a factor locally. Light winds and moderate temperatures were forecast with partly cloudy skies.

Amtrak says it is operating 70 extra trains this week, including 31 additional Acela Express trains, between Washington, New York and Boston. It expects to carry as many as 110,000 passengers nationwide today - about 70 percent more than a typical Wednesday.

Wanting no part of the madness, the Lorsches, of Towson, seemed positively placid as they sat yesterday with daughters Nina, 5, and Tea, 3, in the Penn Station lobby. The girls played with the luggage tags and rolled around on their parents' laps.

"We're coming back on Saturday," said John Lorsch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Sunday is going to be completely insane."

Besides traveling early, Lorsch offered other tips: "Let the kids run around beforehand. Also, a certain Buddha-like serenity helps - if you can achieve that."

Like other transportation modes, traffic is expected to be up over the same period a year ago. The Maryland Transportation Authority projects more than 1.4 million vehicles will travel the Fort McHenry Tunnel, John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and the Bay Bridge today through Sunday - 3 percent more traffic than last year.

Since Oct. 13, the Bay Bridge deck renovation has closed the center lane on the westbound span. But all lanes will be open during the holiday period. Work will resume Monday evening, when another lane will be shut down as part of the four-year, $60 million project.

White said Thanksgiving travel has been on the rise since the period after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"In the beginning, people were not flying and were staying close to home," he said. "Now people are traveling again. They might just be making short hops, having dinner at one place and dessert at another. But everybody is moving around."

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