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Travelers may not feel very thankful

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

If you're flying for Thanksgiving, brace yourself.

Beginning today, the busiest period for holiday air travel will be busier than ever, with a record 27 million passengers, up 4% from last year, jamming airports and stuffing planes over a 12-day period.

And once aboard, there won't be much elbow room: In another record, most planes will be more than 90% full, meaning most flights will take off with all seats occupied.

For the year, passenger loads on flights have averaged 80% of capacity.

Toss a major winter storm or two into the mix, and Thanksgiving travel could make difficulties of flying last summer -- considered the worst on record for delays -- mild by comparison.

Forecasts are for storms in Chicago and Dallas, two of the nation's largest airport hubs, on Wednesday, the busiest day for Thanksgiving travel.

"It's going to be pretty crazy this year," said Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity.

There is some relief in sight. The White House said Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration would work with the Defense Department to let some commercial jets fly through normally restricted military airspace, which could help reduce delays caused by weather or holiday congestion.

Also, travel during Christmas isn't expected to be as crowded because the holiday period is spread out over more days and because many travelers combine New Year's Day into the their vacation plans. The busiest holiday travel period after Thanksgiving is Easter, followed by Christmas.

But more flights during Christmas are sold out, said Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch.

"There are still some deals if you are willing to travel on off days, such as Christmas Eve or on Christmas. But that's about all that's left. You'd be lucky if you get a deal on any other day," McGinnis said.

Airports in Southern California are no exception this Thanksgiving, with the largest number of travelers in years expected.

Overall, travel for the Thanksgiving period dropped in 2001 after the terrorist attacks and again in 2005 before increasing slightly in 2006.

"I'm ready for it," said Joe Hall, a Long Beach resident who will be flying to Melbourne, Fla., on Thanksgiving Day, just in time to have dinner with his children, who are 8 and 13.

Hall, an executive at a Cypress defense contractor who flies frequently for business, said he already had reserved a parking spot at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport to help deal with the expected congestion.

"I've learned to be patient and not get frustrated," Hall said, adding that Thanksgiving can be particularly frustrating for road warriors like himself because the holiday draws "people who don't travel much and don't know the routine. They slow things down."

LAX is bracing for about 1.85 million passengers, up 3% from last year, during the 10-day period that starts today and ends Nov. 25.

Flights on the busiest days -- the day before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving morning and Nov. 25 -- are either fully booked or close to it, LAX officials said.

At Orange County's John Wayne Airport, the crush of passengers will push "the limits of our capacity," said Jenny Wedge, an airport spokeswoman. "This is the busiest year on record for the airport and we're expecting it to be very busy for Thanksgiving."

Wedge, echoing officials at other airports, said passengers should arrive about two hours before a flight.

Parking is particularly scarce at John Wayne, so she advised passengers to get a ride to the airport if possible.

At Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, spokesman Victor Gill is advising travelers to call (818) 565-1308 for up-to-the-minute information about parking availability.

The airport is anticipating a 5% increase in passengers compared with last year, setting a record.

Those dropping off passengers should use the center lane as they enter the terminal area "until you get past the initial baggage claim area," Gill said. "People who hug the right lane get caught in the squeeze."

Federal officials are so worried about the Thanksgiving crush that last week Transportation Secretary Mary Peters conducted an unusual 50-minute conference call with executives of major airlines, airports and aviation trade groups to ask them how the industry was preparing for the onslaught.

"The airlines detailed aggressive plans to ensure they have sufficient staff and resources on hand to cope with the upcoming holiday travel season," Peters said in a statement. "They understand the challenges that come with additional traffic, added stress and inclement weather of this time of year and made strong commitments that they will be prepared."

UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, the largest carrier at LAX, said check-in counters and departure gates would be fully staffed during the busiest days.

United also recently began adding self-serve kiosks at 12 major airports, including LAX, Chicago and Denver. Passengers can use them to obtain new boarding passes if their flights change because of delays or cancellations.

The projected increase in passengers for Thanksgiving baffled some analysts, who anticipated that travelers would cut back on flying after the summer debacle in which more flights were delayed and more luggage mishandled than at any time since such records have been kept.

But Lance Sherry, executive director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University, said the increase was not surprising despite a growing chorus of complaints about declining airline service.

"We complain about it but the reality is there are no options that are as reliable, affordable or fast enough," Sherry said. "When you total up the cost of delays, it's still well below driving a car or taking a train."

Some savvy travelers are finding ways to avoid the Thanksgiving crush altogether by flying on less busy days.

Jason Womack of Ojai left for Costa Rica on Thursday, a day before the Thanksgiving holiday travel period officially begins. Womack and his wife are scheduled to return Thanksgiving Day, when fewer people want to fly.

"We've done it differently over the years but so far we've had good luck traveling on Thanksgiving Day," Womack said before boarding his flight.

With U.S. carriers operating smaller planes with fewer seats, travelers are booking flights earlier than ever. Travelocity said its customers were booking Thanksgiving flights as average of 85 days in advance, up from 81 days in 2006.

Steve Benshoof, vice president for consulting firm Legacy Engineering and a Seal Beach resident, said his girlfriend booked a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the two of them six months ago for travel during the Christmas holiday. They decided to buy the tickets early to "ensure a seat at an affordable price."

"We tried to fly down to Cabo San Lucas last year but airlines were charging $700 for a ticket. That spurred us to book early this year," Benshoof said, adding that "to avoid the crush, we're flying on Christmas Day and coming back New Year's Day. It's our way of coping."

peter.pae@latimes.com

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