Nation Braces for Big Travel Weekend

It's always been the busiest travel time of the year.

But as the first major holiday to fall after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this Thanksgiving is sure to be different from those gone by — and will likely be more nerve-wracking for travelers.

Though air travel is expected to see a 15 percent drop while many people hit the road instead of hopping on a plane, airports are still likely to be jammed, and staff will be under pressure to make tightened security measures go smoothly for skittish passengers.

"All the indications we're getting is that travel will be down somewhat this Thanksgiving, but it will still be very heavy," said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which operates Minneapolis-St. Paul International and six regional airports in the area.

Industry experts say that fliers should expect longer lines, more delays and even some flight cancellations. And tensions promise to be running higher than usual, as many people will be taking to the skies for the first time since the attacks.

But some passengers say the events of Sept. 11 aren't going to stop them from flying.

"It's going to be on people's minds," passenger Bob Morin told Fox News, "but you've got to go on with your life."

Among airlines, there's been a push to educate travelers by issuing travel tips in the hopes of cutting down on holiday mayhem caused by the new security procedures.

"There are a lot of things people can do to make [the] travel experience a little easier," said United Airlines spokeswoman Chris Nardella. "United has undertaken a number of initiatives to ensure the safety of our customers."

United has hired up to 2,000 additional security personnel and added a dozen extra checkpoints at hubs and larger airports. Many other airlines have taken similar steps.

Passengers are advised to check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport and to arrive a whopping two hours before departure for domestic flights and three for international.

"It's going to be a new experience for people," Hogan said. "The most important thing they can do is arrive early so they aren't rushed and aren't stressed."

And packing light is more important than ever. For security reasons, passengers will no longer be allowed to carry on two bags. Instead, only one carry-on plus a small item like a briefcase or purse may be taken onto the plane. Two bags per passenger can be checked, and all luggage must have identifying tags including name, address, telephone number, and destination.

Though some have advised against bringing electronic equipment like computers or cell phones, the FAA and airlines say those items are allowed.

Nevertheless, air travelers should expect much closer scrutiny of their belongings. All luggage will likely be searched, and abandoned bags will be seized. Items such as nail scissors, pocket knives and other sharp tools will be confiscated from carry-ons. Canes, crutches or wheelchairs might be inspected, and passengers could even be asked to take off their shoes or watches.

Even though 'tis the start of the gift-giving season, airlines suggest passengers save the wrapping until they arrive at their destination — guards may unwrap suspicious gifts at checkpoints.

In order to avoid some of the holiday madness, Nardella said people are traveling on different days this Thanksgiving. Normally, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the most popular travel day.

"This year, the Sunday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving are expected to be the busiest for airports," she said. "We'll have additional staff on hand those days."

Hogan said that though fliers should be prepared for some changes, the scene at most airports isn't going to be that unfamiliar this year.

"It will be busy, there will be lines and it will take time, but I don't think it will be that different from what we've seen in years past," he predicted.

Despite such reassurances, plenty of people plan to stay grounded during the holidays. Trains and buses will likely be packed and highways are expected to be even more crowded this year. The AAA is predicting that 87 percent of Americans going on a trip of 50 miles or more — about 30 million people — will drive during the Thanksgiving holiday.

With so many more people on the road this long weekend, motorists are being warned to buckle up and be mindful of other drivers.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 law enforcement agencies are cracking down on child passenger safety, seat belt and drunk driving laws to help make Thanksgiving — traditionally one of the most dangerous travel holidays of the year — a little bit safer.