Ron Brown beat the crowd yesterday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by arriving five hours early for his afternoon flight back home to Boston.
“I’m going to sit down and read. I want to finish ‘The DaVinci Code’ anyway,” said Mr. Brown, a business analyst for a Chicago management-consulting firm.
Countless passengers were held up by long lines at the region’s airports on one of the busiest travel days of the Thanksgiving holiday. Return traffic will make Sunday the busiest of the Thanksgiving holiday for airports and airlines.
Some travelers who chose to drive yesterday got caught in gridlock when a tractor-trailer hauling 8,700 gallons of fuel exploded at about 4:30 a.m. on Interstate 95 in Maryland near the Capital Beltway, closing the major north-south artery.
Two of four southbound lanes were reopened by 8:15 a.m., with the others opening at about 1:30 p.m. Northbound lanes were closed for about an hour.
Higher gasoline prices aren’t keeping people off the roads, and higher airline ticket prices aren’t stopping people from cramming onto airplanes.
Airline tickets cost an average of 15 percent more than last year, according to a study by consulting firm Sabre Airline Solutions. Fewer flights by Independence Air, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines — all of which are in bankruptcy — means that there are fewer seats available and that flights are more packed than a year ago.
Gas prices have risen 25 cents in a year, from an average of $1.95 for a gallon of regular to $2.20, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That hasn’t deterred people from driving, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said. Slightly more people will drive this Thanksgiving than last year. About 594,000 Washington-area residents will drive more than 50 miles from home, up 0.5 percent from 564,300 a year ago.
“If you had told me a year ago that gas would be 25 cents higher and more people would be driving, I’m not sure I would have believed it,” Mr. Anderson said.
An estimated 21.7 million people will board U.S. airplanes for the Thanksgiving holiday, from Nov. 19 to Nov. 29, for domestic and international flights, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines. That’s nearly equal to the number of passengers airlines carried last year during the same period.
Airlines sold more seats at higher prices this year, said Terry Trippler, airline industry analyst at Cheapseats.com.
“This may be the week that the pendulum swings the other way for airlines. They’re having a good day,” he said.
US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Orlando, Fla., is the airline’s top destination among travelers nationwide over Thanksgiving. The Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale and Tampa are the next most-popular destinations for passengers of US Airways, the dominant airline at Reagan Airport.
The region’s airports reported no extraordinary delays. Long lines formed at security checkpoints during the early morning rush at Reagan Airport, but by 9 a.m., few passengers were waiting to get through security. Airport officials added five security checkpoint lanes at the airport to accommodate the throngs of Thanksgiving travelers.
About 545,000 passengers are expected to pass through Reagan Airport in the 11 days from Nov. 18 to Nov. 28, and 850,000 people are expected to pass through Washington Dulles International Airport, said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the airports.
About 625,000 passengers will pass through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said.
“The morning rush went off without a hitch,” he said.
By late afternoon, long-term parking lots were full, but many travelers were amazed at how easy it was to get through security.
“It’s not that bad. A lot smoother than I was expecting,” said Arlington resident Seth Lucia after waiting 10 minutes to get through security.
Mr. Lucia said he wasn’t worried, showing up an hour before his flight to Manchester, N.H.
“That’s not the best idea, but it’s me.”
Baltimore resident Tracy Templin didn’t take the same chance. She checked in two hours before her flight to Illinois.
“I was pretty surprised by the lack of traffic,” she said.
BWI was getting more crowded as the afternoon wore on, but one security screener said passengers were flowing steadily.
“This is how it’s been all day,” said one screener at the new Southwest Airlines wing who would not give his name.
For Mr. Brown and others at Reagan Airport, the key was giving themselves time to slog through ticket and security lines.
“We made sure to leave early,” said Howard Jackson, dean in residence at the National Science Foundation who was traveling with his wife to Massachusetts.
“We thought about taking the train” to avoid lines at the airport, Mr. Jackson said.
Many travelers did opt for Amtrak.
The national passenger rail service put 60 additional trains in service this week in the Northeast Corridor, from the District to Boston, and many trains were sold out.
Amtrak expected about 125,000 passengers to pass through Union Station yesterday. That’s about 80 percent more than the 69,000 passengers on a typical weekday.
Marguerite Higgins contributed to this report.