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Driving to the Thanksgiving turkey

An improving national economy and flat gas prices have travel officials bracing for the busiest Thanksgiving holiday since the 2001 terror attacks.
/ Source: news services

The Thanksgiving travel weekend got off to a smooth start Wednesday thanks to clear skies across much of the country and short lines at most airport security checkpoints.

36 million people nationwide were expected to travel 50 miles or more from their homes over the holiday weekend — the highest number of travelers in two years, according to the .

“Number one, it’s the economy. Whenever people feel more confident about their own personal finances, usually you see a little jump in travel,” AAA spokesman Mantill Williams said.

Gas prices have also been stable, and the weather is perfect for traveling either by air or car, Williams said. “Apparently, they don’t anticipate any type of inclement weather throughout the weekend, so we’re confident the travel is going to live up to our expectations,” he said.

AAA predicted 4.6 million people — 13 percent of all travelers — would fly over the holidays, up 1 percent from 2002 but still 10 to 15 percent lower than pre-Sept. 11 levels.

‘Moving pretty well’
The Federal Aviation Administration reported minimal or normal flight delays as airports and airlines scrambled to handle the flying public.

“The weather is a huge help. It’s been busy and moving pretty well,” said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Washington’s Ronald Reagan National and Dulles airports.

One exception was Chicago O’Hare where arrival delays averaged 20 minutes because of dangerous runway crosswinds. Some incoming flights were delayed for three hours.

The FAA rerouted some flights from East Coast cities to Florida to accommodate the travel surge to warm-weather spots. Airlines added extra flights or readjusted schedules to account for heavier demand. US Airways transferred some planes from quieter routes to busier ones.

With skies clear and air traffic moving, airports were also handling the crowds well. Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the wait at security lines was 10 minutes or less at most big airports.

Some travelers seemed surprised by how smoothly their trips were going.

“I think a lot of us are smarter about how we have to travel now. I just check everything,” Mary Thomas of Oxon Hill, Md., said as she waited for her bags in Atlanta after a flight from Baltimore. “We’re all getting accustomed to the security process. It makes it a lot less chaotic.”

Checkpoint wait times were shorter than last year at most airports, according to transportation officials who credited a better-educated flying public and more efficient screeners.

Wait times for early-afternoon flights Wednesday ranged from 15 minutes in Atlanta to three minutes in Denver, and in Minneapolis-St. Paul, five minutes.

Although Denver’s airport ran smoothly, snow meant big problems for motorists in the area. Traffic on Interstate 70 was backed up for miles because of more than a dozen wrecks.

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Administration, said the percentage of passengers who set off metal detectors and then have to be searched was running about 8 percent to 10 percent by mid-afternoon Wednesday, down from 16 percent last year.

“People are showing up early, prepared and patient,” Turmail said.

The TSA offered tips to save airline passengers a few minutes in line, including storing all metal items in a carry-on bag, taking laptop computers out of their cases so they can be quickly inspected, and taking off coats and shoes before reaching the front of the line.

"You’d be amazed at what people have in their bags,” TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said.“If they’ll just check the list, most of these items are fine in a checked bag.”

Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport expected 250,000 passengers to fly out of Atlanta on Sunday - the airport’s busiest travel day.

“As long as you can keep people moving, it’s not that bad,” said Willie Williams, Atlanta’s TSA director. “People don’t mind the security. They want a safe ride.”

Amtrak, the nation’s only city-to-city passenger railroad, estimates it will move 550,000 people during the holiday period. Between Tuesday and next Monday, Amtrak plans to add 78 trains nationally, virtually all of them in the Northeast.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.