- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

The busiest travel weekend of the year kicked off yesterday with fog, rain, long lines, traffic snarls and high gasoline prices.

More than 37 million people are expected to travel nationwide this weekend, the highest amount for the Thanksgiving holiday since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) was expecting 73,000 passengers to come through the airport yesterday — many of whom showed up early in the day.

Long-term parking lots were full, and passengers were directed to the $20-a-day daily parking garage. Airport officials say BWI was busy, but things ran smoothly.

But it was not so smooth for some travelers and those waiting for arriving passengers at one security checkpoint in the afternoon. A piercing alarm sounded for about 10 minutes, shutting down the long security line. Everyone in the area, including those waiting to be screened, had to remain still.

“No one was permitted to move,” said Holly Campbell of Bethesda, who was waiting for her mother to arrive on a flight from Kansas. “Security guards were yelling, ‘Don’t walk.’”

There was no official comment on the alarm, but it probably was sounded because an item not permitted on a plane was found during the screening process.

When the alarm stopped, the security line started again and cleared out the waiting passengers fairly quickly.

Travelers are expected to fly in record numbers this weekend, with 16.3 million boarding airplanes, according to the Air Transport Association, a Washington trade association. That is up 2.5 percent from 15.9 million passengers in 2003.

A projected 2 million other travelers will take the bus, train or other modes of transportation, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, the regional motor club.

About 590,000 Washington-area residents will drive to their destinations, while an additional 86,400 will board planes, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Hundreds of passengers got a jump on the holiday traffic at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by getting to check-in counters and security checkpoints at 6 a.m.

By later in the afternoon yesterday, the volume at the airport had lulled, but airport workers were preparing for thousands to pass through in the evening.

“Things have been going smoothly most of the day. There wasn’t that much of a crunch at 6 a.m., but there will be later on,” said a Reagan Airport screener who asked not to be named.

Most travelers were surprised that they were able to navigate the lines in 10 to 25 minutes in the early afternoon.

Cindy Stanford and her family arrived 2 1/2 hours early for their flight to Miami, because they expected heavy crowds at the check-in and security stations.

“We thought it would be really bad, but it’s been pretty easy so far,” said the Gaithersburg resident. “We ended up being 5 1/2 hours early because our first flight was canceled.”

Lines to the check-in counters fluctuated from no lines to lines with up to 25 passengers for major airlines such as US Airways, Delta and Continental.

Security lines varied as well, with the bulk of passengers being held up at security stations for gates leading to several US Airways flights.

“It’ll probably take me 40 minutes to get through security, but that’s better than I thought,” said Connecticut resident Nicole DiCocco after she entered the airport’s longest security line at the far left of the main terminal.

Passengers were advised by airport staff to go through other checkpoints and take a shuttle over to their gate to alleviate some of the congestion.

“I really thought it would be more chaotic today, but it’s less busy than it was a couple Sundays ago,” said Miss DiCocco, who was heading to Farmington, Conn.

But stormy weather, like the first snowfall in Chicago, was causing delays. Flights were delayed up to three hours at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport — one of the country’s major airports for connecting flights — and some were canceled.

Deale, Md., residents John and Mary Driver said they were worried that their flight to Chicago would face major delays because of the snowfall in the area.

“So far, everything has been great, and we hope there isn’t a blizzard there,” Mrs. Driver said.

The area was expected to get up to 6 inches of snow by the end of yesterday, according to the National Weather Service.

Traffic on the Capital Beltway already was backed up for miles yesterday afternoon as travelers headed toward Washington Dulles International Airport.

A middle-aged woman at Dulles, who would not give her name, said her flight from Dallas flew around in a holding pattern for a half hour because of the heavy air traffic.

“That’s just normal. On Thanksgiving, you would think there would be a lot of traffic,” the woman said. “I’m sure the fog didn’t help.”

A Leesburg, Va., graphic designer, who would not give his name, waited longer than he planned at the check-in counter for Continental Airlines when he was forced to get his ticket reissued after his flight at Dulles Airport was delayed.

“I guess there has been some delays. The line is quite long,” the man said.

Parking spots were still available at Dulles and Reagan airports in the early evening yesterday, said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees the two airports.

Screening lines at the airports were becoming longer than the average 10-minute wait, but less than the 40 to 45 minutes that the authority was expecting, Mr. Sullivan said.

Air passengers are being asked to remove their outermost layer of clothing such as sports coats, blazers and jackets. They also are asked to take cigarette packs and candy bars out of their pockets because the foil can set off detectors.

Additionally, airport screeners are conducting more pat-downs for passengers who go through secondary searches, creating a backlash from female passengers who say the searches are invasive.

Lori Glover, who was flying out of Dulles airport to Chicago yesterday, said she didn’t mind the pat-downs.

“I’d rather them pat everybody down than not and risk getting hurt,” the Burke resident said.

Amtrak, which had warned passengers to expect 80 percent more traffic than normal, had steady, short lines at Union Station in the afternoon yesterday. Officials predicted longer lines for the evening crowds at the station, where officials were checking IDs.

On the roads, motorists are paying on average $1.94 for a gallon of gasoline, 43 cents more than a year ago, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

More motorists are expected to hit the roads and highways today, according to the Department of Transportation.

But they got out of paying tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, after about 2,000 toll workers walked off the job on Tuesday because of failing contract talks. The turnpike commission on its Web site said it would install a temporary toll today of $2 per passenger vehicle and $15 per commercial vehicle.

• Donna De Marco and Tom Ramstack contributed to this report.

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