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More fliers, fewer workers for the holiday

Experts advise passengers to show up at the airport at least 90 minutes in advance to navigate crowds and lines.
Passengers wait in line at the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on November 27, 2002
Passengers wait in line at the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on November 27, 2002Scott Olson / REUTERS
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

Airlines and airports are bracing for their busiest Thanksgiving weekend in history as passengers flock to the skies thanks to the lowest airfares in 17 years.

But the swarm of travelers will find smaller planes, fewer airline employees and backed-up security lines. The record Thanksgiving weekend hits as many airlines, including US Airways, United, Delta and Northwest, have cut jobs and workers' pay and benefits, presenting a challenge to customer service. Smaller planes are in use to reduce fuel costs at a time of record fuel prices, said Air Transport Association spokesman Doug Wills.

US Airways chief executive Bruce R. Lakefield characterized this weekend as a “big opportunity” for workers to win over travelers who might be concerned about the dependability of the financially struggling carrier.

“An efficient operation and friendly service will go a long way to instill confidence among our customers, those who pay our bills and salaries,” Lakefield said in his weekly recorded telephone message to workers. “We want to give each and every one of them a reason for repeat business.”

More than 16.3 million passengers are expected to pass through the airports this holiday, up from last year's record of 15.9 million, according to the Air Transport Association, the industry's trade group.

Sunday will be the busiest day: United has sold about 94 percent of its seats for that day, up from 90 percent last Thanksgiving; Delta has sold 90 percent of its Sunday seats. Today and tomorrow are the second-busiest periods, with Thanksgiving day and Friday the lightest.

Airlines are encouraging travelers to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before departure. Several carriers, such as US Airways and Delta, advise passengers to print their own authorized boarding passes from the airlines' Web sites, allowing them to bypass the kiosk machines and ticket counters and go directly to the security checkpoints. Delta suggests that passengers with boarding passes check their bags with a skycap at the curb.

Most airlines are requiring employees to work overtime to ensure they will have the staff to handle the large crowds. US Airways will reward employees who have “perfect attendance” during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with two guaranteed seat passes for up to a year, said Christopher L. Chiames, US Airways' senior vice president of corporate affairs. Employees flying on free passes normally must go standby. US Airways also is giving workers with perfect attendance a chance to win computers and tickets to Broadway shows.

The airline has seen an increase in the number of workers calling in sick since a bankruptcy court judge agreed to a 21 percent pay cut for employees.

Travelers trying to decrease the wait in security lines should be prepared to remove their coats and blazers and empty everything from their pockets, according to Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Yolanda Clark. Slip-on shoes are also a good idea, since they're easier to remove if they set off the security alarm or if the passenger is selected for additional screening. Gifts should not be wrapped because security officers may have to look inside the package.

Undeveloped film should be placed in carry-on bags because the X-ray equipment used for checked bags could damage it.