Taking off on a high note

Amtrak, BWI travelers, braced for `sheer insanity,' get a pleasant surprise

November 22, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Amtrak trains had empty seats. Cab drivers at Baltimore's Penn Station were standing around wondering where everyone was. Traffic on local highways chugged along for much of the day.

And through midafternoon, the lines never seemed more than 20-deep at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The lost-baggage offices were nearly empty, and the Starbucks had two more workers than customers.

Yesterday was an oddly drama-free day for many travelers, who had braced for a wild, woolly Thanksgiving rush but found themselves ahead of schedule and far less harried than they expected.

"So far, so good," said Pamela Walitt, 31, who was stretching as her husband, Brett, 31, sat at a picnic table at the Maryland Welcome Center on Interstate 95 in Howard County. The couple was traveling from New York City to Arlington, Va. "It's been very quiet," Brett said. "We left really early. Didn't even hit traffic on the George Washington Bridge, which is crazy."

When travel is bad on the holidays, it's "sheer insanity," said Estelle Fine of Wheaton, but yesterday was shaping up to be one of the mild days - at least on Amtrak. "They were so well-organized, courteous and polite," she said, settling into her train seat for the ride from Washington to New York. She had brought a box of chocolate turkeys for her grandchildren and other family members and had dispensed a few along the way, including one that went to an especially helpful porter.

"It's a little more like spring break than Thanksgiving," said Jonathan Dean, BWI spokesman. He, like most people, was prepared for more chaos, but a combination of good weather in Maryland and around much of the country, early-arriving passengers and extra airport, airline and security workers seemed to keep things uncharacteristically smooth for a busy holiday.

The airport did not escape unscathed. About 5 p.m., a small plane landed with its gear up. The four passengers were not injured, but the general aviation runway was closed. Commercial operations were not affected.

The airlines said their planes were full. Dean said BWI was expecting 75,000 people to come through yesterday, up from the average of 56,000. By midafternoon, one of the long-term lots was full.

The board showed more delayed flights in the prime travel hours after 5 p.m., but most were less than an hour late. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that a handful of airports had weather-related problems, including Boston, New York and Chicago, which could muck up the system more today.

Patty Burgess of Harpers Ferry, W.Va, arrived at BWI in an hour and 15 minutes because traffic was moving so swiftly. That gave her more than a couple of hours before her daughter-in-law would get in from Sarasota, Fla., at 1:45 p.m. - 20 minutes late. She got a magazine and a sandwich, and took a seat in view of baggage carousel No. 13 at AirTran Airways. She was in a bank of chairs by herself.

"I think everyone did what I did and left the house really early and has gotten where they are going," she said. "I was very pleasantly surprised. And I'd rather be here early than late anyway."

Natasha Zelensky and Jared Brewer of Alexandria also arrived early. They had a 3:35 p.m. flight on Continental Airlines to Houston to see Brewer's parents but they had checked their bags before 2 p.m. "It's going so smoothly," she said. "A little too smoothly. I'm suspicious."

Though this is the first November that gas prices are on average more than $3 a gallon nationally - $3.04 in Maryland yesterday - those figures don't seem to be deterring motorists, said Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman at AAA Mid-Atlantic. A preholiday survey conducted by AAA predicted that road travel would be up by 1.3 percent this year, she said.

Though area roadways were largely flowing, scattered accidents temporarily caused some delays. A two-vehicle accident closed the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel's east tube for about 40 minutes, sent one person to the hospital and caused a backup of four miles by 4 p.m. when the tube was reopened.

It was typical Thanksgiving traffic, said Kelly McCleary at the Maryland Transportation Authority. She suggested that motorists traveling this weekend drive at off-peak hours - before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.- and check conditions online before they leave home.

Amtrak had several sold-out trains running yesterday, said spokeswoman Tracy Connell. The Northeast corridor is Amtrak's busiest route, and the day before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest day of the year for train travel. Last year, 115,000 passengers traveled that day - a 70 percent increase over an average day.

But the prospect of crowds did not deter Frances Rutherford and her daughter, Jessica Turner, 22. They were traveling from Baltimore - where Turner is a Johns Hopkins University graduate student - to New York City to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was the first train trip for them and the first time they had not spent the holiday in West Virginia.

"I don't know what I'm more excited about, the train trip or the parade," said Rutherford, as she waited in Penn Station. Her husband died recently, Rutherford said, and she and her daughter are determined to start some new traditions in her family.

"We've decided we're going to do things we always wanted to do and have never done before," she said.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

Meredith Cohn and Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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