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Weather smileson travelers as holiday begins

Travelers leaving for the Memorial Day Weekend Friday had plenty going against them, including full planes and crowded roads, but they also had one thing going right, at least: decent weather.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Travelers leaving for the Memorial Day Weekend Friday had plenty going against them, including full planes and crowded roads, but they also had one thing going right: decent weather.

Only one airport, San Francisco International, experienced weather delays Friday morning, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Scattered showers popped up in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and heavier rains came down in some spots in Wisconsin and Michigan, but no impact on travel was noted.

The National Weather Service issued its first-ever heat advisory for Seattle, with a high of 87 forecast for Friday, but the heat was no hindrance to fliers or drivers.

On Thursday, airlines said they carried more passengers than usual for the kickoff of the summer season. Flights were delayed to some of the biggest airports — Chicago O’Hare, Boston Logan, Newark, N.J., New York LaGuardia and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — according to the FAA Administration.

“We had small pockets of weather to contend with in the Northeast and some wind at O’Hare, but overall we got off to a good start,” said FAA spokesman Greg Martin.

As for roadways, the Automobile Association of America expects 31.1 million Americans will make driving trips this weekend, up 2.2 percent from last year.

The increase is seen despite the fact the national gas-price average is $2.11 a gallon, 6 cents more than a year ago, although fuel prices have recently begun to decline ahead of the peak driving season.

Worst air season ever?
Air travel could be the bigger headache, however, with some experts predicting that the upcoming vacation season could rival 2000, the worst ever for flight delays, cancellations and cranky travelers crammed into airports.

Takeoffs are now returning to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, and millions of tickets have already been sold. Security-related delays are a concern, and so is one thing that no one controls: Mother Nature.

Hot, humid air produces summer thunderstorms, typically in a zone that stretches from Texas to Michigan. They’re too high to fly over, too dangerous to fly through and often too wide to fly around.

At hub airports — especially O’Hare — bad weather can combine with huge numbers of passengers to cause delays that cascade through the entire system. That’s what happened in 2000, forcing thousands of passengers to sleep on terminal floors or sit fuming while their planes lingered on runways for hours.

Much has been done to improve things since then. Airports have added runways and terminals and improved efficiency, and the FAA has adopted new strategies.

But the system has yet to be tested during a bad thunderstorm season, and the signs so far aren’t encouraging.

D.C. experience
The Memorial Day rush at Washington Dulles International Airport began early Thursday afternoon as security lines suddenly ballooned to thousands of travelers.

Many took advantage of cheap ticket prices. The average airfare for a 1,000-mile flight is now $118 — 20 percent lower than it was in 2000, according to Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead.

Bargain airfares allowed Nancy Cross, a physician’s assistant from Ashburn, Va., to take her husband and two stepdaughters with her to Orlando, Fla., where she was attending a medical conference.

Cross couldn’t believe the security line. “I can’t even see where it begins,” she said, standing on tiptoes.

Six airports likely to see delays
Mead said Thursday that six airports are likely to experience delays this summer: Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, Dulles, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale.

To avoid massive weather disruptions throughout the whole system, the FAA has planned alternate routes based on where storms are likely to develop.

Faster and more accurate weather prediction equipment allows air traffic controllers and the airlines to respond more quickly to changes in weather systems.

The FAA, though, can’t control the volume of passengers or delays caused by understaffing at the airlines.

For the first 10 weeks of this year, slightly more flights were delayed, and delayed longer, than they were during the same period in 2000. Most delays were caused by weather.

Flying numbers
In 2000, there were 698.9 million passenger boardings of commercial planes in the United States, according to the FAA. In 2004, there were almost as many — 698.7 million — and that number is expected to rise in 2005.

Cash-strapped air carriers slashed their work forces in the past few years to save money. U.S. airlines cut 81,717 jobs between July 2000 and July 2004, and another 16,990 by February, leaving a total of 400,253 full-time equivalent workers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Understaffing was responsible for more than 500,000 US Airways passengers being delayed during the December holidays, according to a report issued by Mead. The report criticized the way US Airways Group Inc. handled the shortages of fleet service employees and flight attendants, particularly in Philadelphia.

US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the airline is adding staff in key hubs — Washington, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. — as part of a renewed focus on on-time performance. The airline is also working to get flights off the gate and in the air on time by doing things like closing the aircraft door five minutes before departure.

To avoid a repeat of 2000, several airlines have altered their flight schedules to eliminate rush-hour traffic jams at hub airports.

The FAA also has ordered airlines to reduce their schedules at O’Hare — a hub for both American and United Airlines — during peak travel periods. The move has helped reduce congestion, Mead said.

Creative policing
A major concern for police this weekend is drunk driving. In Indiana, one county got creative by offering $50 rewards for ratting on a drunk driver.

“I hope it encourages people to call the police when they see unsafe driving,” said Michael Grennes, chairman of the Porter County Drunk Driving Task Force.

The tip line was operating last Memorial Day weekend, too. County officials say four people reported drunken drivers and claimed their rewards.