Thanksgiving travelers crowded highways, airports and railroads on their way into and out of Washington yesterday in an uneventful holiday trek.
At Washington’s three major airports, increased security caused lines to back up, but the number of passengers was down from previous years.
If there was anything unusual about this year’s holiday trips, it was the unseen threat created by the September 11 terrorist attacks that influenced travelers.
“I have more concern than I did before September 11 but not enough that it keeps me from flying,” said Edward Williams as he stood in line at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday for a return trip home to Chicago. He was in the Washington area doing consulting work for an information-technology customer.
As he looked around Pier B at hundreds of Southwest Airlines passengers waiting to pass through metal detectors and to be searched by screeners, he said, “I guess it’s a reality of the situation.”
Maryland Aviation Administration officials estimated the number of fliers at BWI for Thanksgiving traditionally the biggest travel holiday of the year will be down 8 percent from last year, or about 377,000 total passengers. Washington Dulles International Airport is expecting 600,000 travelers, down about 10 percent from 2000.
At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, about 100,000 travelers are expected for the holiday, which is down 78 percent from last year. So far, the airport is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate only 45 percent of the flights it had before the September 11 attack made Reagan Airport the nation’s most heavily guarded commercial airport.
The silver lining for travelers at the airport was that the lines were small. At Dulles, the lines peaked in midafternoon, making some passengers spend as much as 45 minutes to check in and pass through security.
“I think it’s going really well,” said Jennifer Grazen, a D.C. resident flying out of Dulles to visit family in Los Angeles for the holiday. “It’s flowing.”
Nationally, the AAA auto club estimates airline travel will be down 27 percent for the holiday, largely because of security concerns. Instead, more travelers will drive, ride trains or buses, AAA says. Overall, 6 percent fewer people are expected to travel.
A Maryland Institute College of Art graduate student seemed to sum up the feelings of the nation yesterday as she stood in line at BWI for a trip home to Boston. She said the National Guardsmen with machine guns walking nearby and long lines at security checkpoints were necessary for “whatever it takes to make things safe and make people feel better.”
“I have more reservations now than I used to,” said Karin Horlbeck, between forward lurches of the Pier B line for Southwest Airlines. The Nov. 12 crash of American Airlines Flight 587 added to her concerns.
“It makes you realize there are some things out of your control,” she said.
Reagan Airport was the quietest of the region’s three major airports, but still busier than the past few days, passengers and merchants said.
In the late morning and early afternoon, traffic through the terminals was light, but picked up as evening approached and many travelers left work early to catch flights. Veteran passengers were still struck by the empty feel of the airport.
Craig Vandegrift, 31, who flew from Chicago to Washington with his wife, said, “My wife says it’s eerie but I find it depressing,” said Mr. Vandegrift, a financial analyst. “There’s no business here.”
The longest lines were to be found at the check-in counters for US Airways, the airport’s largest airline tenant. Passengers waited up to 45 minutes to check their bags. At the security checkpoints, lines rarely stretched more than 10 passengers.
“I’d rather have the hassle of long lines,” said Carole Lieber, 45, an Arlington resident who was headed to Boston. “People need to use this airport before it goes bust.”
Some of the Washington travelers who otherwise might have flown rode Amtrak trains out of Union Station yesterday. Throughout the day, the station was noticeably more crowded than usual for even a Thanksgiving holiday.
Although most travelers made it to their destinations without problems, crowded conditions contributed to some snags. One train from Chicago arrived two hours late. A clerk at Union Station issued a man a ticket for a business class seat that did not exist. A woman who ordered tickets over the telephone never received them.
“But I have to expect this during the holiday season,” said Lynn Babcock before her trip to New York.
Another woman said train travel was the best alternative under the circumstances.
“We didn’t want to drive because of heavy traffic, and with the excessive security at the airports, we figured it would take as long to go through security as it would just to take the train up,” said Ottilia Calhoun, who was traveling with her family to Connecticut.
Amtrak hired a band to soothe the nerves of Union Station travelers as they waited in lines. The railroad added 75,000 seats, or 15 percent of its capacity, to its train schedule for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The highways also were crowded as 86 percent of D.C. area travelers chose to drive, which translates to about 472,000 people. Last year, 82 percent drove.
“A lot of people have gotten on the road early,” said Justin McNaull, AAA spokesman. “I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic at 12:30 p.m. going west on 66.”
By late afternoon on Interstate 66, he said, “On 20 miles of highway, 14 miles of it was choked with traffic.”
Downtown Washington was caught in a similar situation yesterday afternoon as many workers left jobs early to start their holiday trips. By 3 p.m., main arteries were bumper to bumper with rush-hour style lines at major intersections.
The good news is that no major traffic accidents were reported in the Washington area yesterday.
Greyhound Lines Inc. would not predict how many passengers will ride its buses this Thanksgiving. Last year, however, Greyhound had more than 800,000 passengers over the six-day period beginning the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
This year, the carrier has had an increase in advance purchase tickets and long-haul ticket sales for trips of 1,000 miles or more, which “leads us to believe some airline passengers are going Greyhound,” said spokesman Jamille Bradfield.
Carter Dougherty, Tim Lemke, Kate Royce, Donna De Marco and Patrice Hill contributed to this article.