Image: Hurry up and wait
David Zalubowski  /  AP file
This was the scene at Denver International Airport on December 23, 2006. Fewer people are expected to take to the skies this year, and airlines have cut the number of available flights, but columnist Rob Lovitt has some words of caution if you think everything will be rosy compared to seasons past.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/16/2008 9:52:03 AM ET 2008-12-16T14:52:03

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the concourse,

The traffic was slow, but about to get worse.

There’d be lines at security and no room to roam,

Assuming, that is, we don’t all just stay home ...

Well, not all of us, maybe, but apparently, quite a few are doing just that. According to the Air Transport Association, the airline-industry trade group, U.S. airlines are expected to carry 43 million passengers between December 18 to January 7, a drop of nine percent from last year.

AAA on Wednesday predicted a 2.1 percent dip in Christmas holiday travel — the first drop since 2002.

Which is not to suggest that planes will be flying around half-empty. The Christmas holiday is still one of the busiest travel periods of the year, and the airlines’ continuing capacity cuts will keep most flights as full as ever. Likewise, any drop in airport volumes will likely go unnoticed as legions of infrequent fliers deal with new fees, new rules and snafus at security.

Of course, if the weather goes bad, it’ll all get worse in a hurry. That’s what happened over Thanksgiving, as rain and snow wreaked havoc on flight schedules and travelers’ plans. According to FlightStats.com, the airlines’ on-time performance, which had topped 90 percent on Thursday and Friday, plunged to less than 50 percent on Sunday.

In other words, even a shrinking air-traffic system remains a big, fat target for bad weather, and those who are still flying this holiday season should be prepared for the worst. That means taking the usual precautions — checking in online, reserving parking in advance, getting to the airport early, etc. — but also being aware of the latest twists in air travel.

Airlines expand pay-to-play options
Both AirTran Airways and Delta Air Lines are now charging $15 to check a first bag (and $25 for a second), so pack light or prepare to pay up. On AirTran, travelers who purchased their tickets on or after November 12 are subject to the fee. Business class passengers, elite-level frequent fliers and coach passengers who bought their tickets before November 12 are exempt.

On Delta, passengers who purchased their tickets on or after November 6 will also be charged $15, although there are exceptions for passengers buying full-fare coach tickets, flying First or Business Class or traveling internationally. The airline has also reduced its fee for a second bag from $50 to $25, matching merger partner Northwest Airlines. Click here for full details.

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Meanwhile, United Airlines is offering another twist on à la carte pricing: Premier Line Service, which now lets customers pay $25 per flight for access to the priority lanes — at check-in, security and  boarding — that were previously reserved for elite-level frequent fliers. (Whether that’s a good deal or not no doubt depends on your tolerance for lines — not to mention your existing status with the airline.) The service, which can be purchased in advance on United.com, is available at the airlines’ five major hubs and nine other airports.

At the airport: From peace and quiet to karaoke
No one wants to spend time at the airport, but as Thanksgiving proved yet again, bad weather and holiday travel go together like overeating and indigestion. If nothing else, the following airports may offer a bit of relief while you’re waiting for the blockage to clear:

Earlier this month, LAX opened reLAX, which it bills as the nation’s first pay-to-use airport lounge. Located before security in the Tom Bradley Terminal, the lounge offers an escape from the hurly-burly of the terminal to anyone willing to pay the $25 admission fee (good for three hours). That compares to $30–$50 for a day pass to most airline-operated lounges and gets you complimentary snacks and beverages, free Wi-Fi and basic business services and, presumably, a little respite from the pandemonium outside.

Across the country, the folks at Newark Liberty International Airport have taken a somewhat different approach to holiday cheer: Last month, the airport unveiled Heineken Lounge, the beer-giant’s first branded airport bar in the U.S. Located in Terminal C, the pub will offer beverages from Heineken and other brands, along with light meals, private cabanas and televised entertainment.

Finally, if you’re the sort that believes music calms the savage breast (or beast, as some would have it), Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport has just the ticket. This year, the airport has set up a karaoke machine filled with holiday music and is inviting travelers to get in touch with their inner Perry Como or Andy Williams.

So, if you’re in the terminal, feel free to step up and spread some holiday spirit. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” perhaps, or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” On the other hand, if your favorite Christmas carol is “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”, do the rest of us a favor and keep it to yourself.

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