- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Christmas travel plans this year are being overshadowed by a Code Orange terror alert and warnings that al Qaeda plans another suicide hijacking of an airliner.

Nevertheless, the travel industry reports reservations for planes, trains and hotel rooms are brisk.

“We’re burned out from the threats and the war and the economy and the downer that life has been this year,” said Deborah DeYoung, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman. “People seem ready to get away and take a break.”

About 977,000 Washington-area residents are likely to travel during this Christmas holiday season, up about 21/2 percent from last year, AAA said. About 81 percent will travel by car, and most of the rest are likely to fly.

“Even the Code Orange is not changing people’s minds about traveling,” Miss DeYoung said. “We don’t see cancellations among our members and customers. We’re hearing people saying, ‘They’re not going to deter me.’”

The average trip is expected to be 275 miles. About 43 percent of the trips will be to visit family or friends. The others will be mostly vacations and business travel.

Some travel agents said they were too busy to respond to reporters’ inquiries.

Amtrak officials said they also noticed an optimistic trend in Christmas travel.

“Trains are full,” Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said. “Hopefully the trend will continue.”

Nevertheless, the Code Orange warning of a high risk of terrorist attack is resulting in tighter security for airline passengers.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said intelligence reports indicate the threat of a terrorist strike that could be as devastating as the September 11 attacks.

The Transportation Security Administration is telling passengers to prepare for more random vehicle inspections at airports, more law enforcement officers with police dogs and more public announcements to report unattended baggage.

The TSA is putting all its available screeners on duty but still warns of longer lines at airport checkpoints.

U.S. government officials said debriefings of terrorists show al Qaeda still wants to use civil aviation for an attack, believing it would do the most damage to the U.S. economy.

They said the information leading to Sunday’s decision to raise the terror alert to its second-highest level indicated a hijack threat of international flights into U.S. airspace.

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