- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Travelers be warned: More than 1 million local residents will pack the roadways, train stations and airports this holiday season on their way to visit relatives near and far.

Gasoline prices are slipping, confidence in the security measures is growing, and more travelers are expected to be out than ever before.

“It could be the biggest travel holiday in history, bar none,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said, “We’re back to pre-September 11 numbers at National and way above that at Dulles,” referring to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.

During the Thanksgiving weekend, industry observers noticed that, for the first time, travel numbers reached or surpassed pre-September 11 figures. They expect the same will be true for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, 888,000 local residents, or 84 percent of local travelers, will use automobiles as their primary means of transportation, up 2.8 percent from last year. The organization also foresees a 4.8 percent increase in air travelers. About 168,000 Washington-area residents will be boarding planes this holiday season, according to AAA.

High gasoline prices haven’t discouraged drivers. AAA said the Washington area average has dropped to $1.83 per gallon of unleaded gas, down from the record of $2.05 per gallon set on Memorial Day weekend. In the past month alone, gas prices have fallen 11 cents.

Local airports are gearing up for a record number of fliers. Ms. Hamilton said today likely will be the busiest day at area airports, with a projected 120,000 travelers. That’s up 20 percent over the busiest day of 2003.

Dulles Airport, in particular, has seen a sharp rise in travelers this year. One explanation for the increase is the presence of Independence Air, a new low-fare regional carrier that services the Eastern and Midwestern United States. From last June, when the airline started its operations at Dulles Airport, to September, the carrier added 600 flights to its daily schedule nationwide.

Ms. Hamilton expects a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in the number of travelers through Dulles for the year. Reagan Airport offers only a set number of flights per day, so it has not seen the same amount of growth.

Amtrak does not forecast a sudden spike in the number of riders it will carry, partly because the two holidays are a week apart. However, on the day before Thanksgiving, Amtrak did see an 80 percent jump in riders, from 69,000 on an average day to 125,000, said Tracy Connell, a spokeswoman for Amtrak. For the Thanksgiving week, there was a 30 percent increase in customers, for a total of 600,000 riders nationwide.

Union Station was bustling yesterday afternoon with travelers rushing to catch their trains.

Amtrak riders there said they appreciated the convenience of the rail lines. David Anthony of Fredericksburg, Va., has avoided flying since September 11, because of the “security arrangements” at airports.

Patricia Warrenton and Loveena Rajanayakam, both local residents, said they had chosen to ride Amtrak so they could purchase last-minute tickets at a reasonable price.

Despite the strong projections, weather could produce a mess for some travelers. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, and with last-minute shoppers on the roads, it could be “a real recipe for disaster,” Mr. Anderson said.

Experts attribute the travel surge to the weekend holidays, with both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day falling on Saturdays. In addition, the legal holidays for both days are scheduled for the two successive Fridays.

Mr. Anderson suspects that travelers also have grown accustomed to the hassles of post-September 11 travel.

“America’s traveling is back and bigger than ever. We’re getting past 9/11.”

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