Preflight turbulence ahead

Airlines squeezing more Fourth of July travelers into fewer planes

July 01, 2006|By MARK SKERTIC | MARK SKERTIC,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Before celebrating the nation's birthday, many travelers will fight some Independence Day-caliber battles of their own.

They will face long airport check-in lines, followed by security lines and even lines at Starbucks. Planes packed to record levels are great news for cash-strapped carriers but frustrating for travelers who want a little extra space. And those who haven't traveled in a while will discover check-in kiosks and mandatory fees for skycaps.

In other words, expect a little hassle this Fourth of July holiday, which is expected to bring the busiest travel weekend of the year.

"Save yourself a headache; pack light and arrive early," said Terry Trippler, consultant with Vacation Passport, a travel company. "You know it's going to be busy."

Carriers expect planes to be more than 90 percent full on average during the holiday weekend, about 10 percentage points more than most days.

The Air Transport Association forecasts the busiest summer ever for air travel. About 207 million people are expected to take trips domestically and abroad this summer, an increase of about 2 million from last year.

This comes as carriers are handling more passengers with fewer and smaller planes, part of an effort to reduce costs. The number of airline employees also has dropped, as carriers have sought leaner operations in hopes of achieving profitability.

So far, carriers and airports have been able to handle the increased demand, Trippler said. Their success is a combination of hard work and good fortune, he said.

"We are a third of the way through the summer travel season, we're approaching the second major holiday of summer and, so far, we haven't had any major problems," Trippler said. "But we also haven't had the major thunderstorms in the Midwest that we expect this time of year. We haven't had other major problems. So far, so good."

That doesn't mean that airlines don't have angry crowds gathered in front of customer service desks, desperate for help after isolated cancellations and delays. So far, major airlines have avoided the meltdowns that bring national attention and passenger scorn.

Last week, AirTran Airways had the biggest problem of any carrier this summer when problems with new software caused thousands to miss flights in Atlanta.

The airline apologized and gave $100 travel vouchers to affected passengers.

Travel problems during a holiday can escalate quickly, as large numbers of travelers are desperate to reach their destinations in a limited window of time.

In late December, United Airlines was not adequately prepared for huge numbers of vacation travelers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The backup resulted in thousands of people standing for hours in long lines that stretched outside the terminal.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline learned from its mistakes.

"We are prepared for this holiday weekend," she said.

Carriers said extra staff will be scheduled this weekend to handle crowds. Many will be directing some travelers to check-in kiosks.

Although the kiosks are common in airports, those who travel occasionally are sometimes reluctant to use the machines, preferring to check in with an airline employee, according to the carriers.

Airport security also is bracing for large crowds, said Lara Uselding, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

The wait in a security line often grows because some passengers carry lighters, knives and other banned items. A popular one this time of year is packs of bottle rockets or other items to celebrate the holiday, she said.

"When they bring on prohibited items, it slows it down for everybody," Uselding said. "We're still seeing people come through with fireworks and firearms."

Mark Skertic writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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