NEW YORK (MainStreet)- What if every travel day were like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving? Shudder. But just that gruesome scenario is what the U.S. Travel Association - a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group - predicts for many of the nation’s airports, a lot sooner than you likely are prepared for.
The reality is that political fixes are not likely, not soon, which means it’s up to every traveler to know his own coping strategies. Proven tips are below and if you are traveling this week, you definitely want to know them.
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But, first, absorb the stark reality of Thanksgiving air travel. AAA is predicting that 46.3 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from their home during Thanksgiving. Some 3.55 million Americans will swarm airports, with most flying out on Wednesday and back on Sunday which, traditionally, are the busiest, most hectic days of the year at just about every airport. That’s a volume 100% to 200% higher than a typical day and the throngs strain everything.
, baggage claim, even finding a place to sit near the gate become grueling experiences.
But soon this will be a weekly occurrence, predicted USTA. According to its research, “Within the next decade, 27 of the nation’s top 30 airports will experience the same congestion as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving two days each week. For 20 of these airports, this will happen in the next five years.”
Some of the worst hit airports, said USTA, are Honolulu - expect two days per week as bad as Wednesday before Thanksgiving imminently; Orlando - just as bad as Honolulu; Las Vegas’s McCarran International - ditto; and plenty more are on the high risk list including Boston’s Logan Airport, Newark Liberty International, Baltimore-Washington International and JFK in New York City.
The problem according to USTA: government just has not invested in the infrastructure expansion needed to meet the steadily growing demand for air travel, and the upshot is that ever more, travelers are jamming into too-small airports. There is no easy fix. Airports just are not politically popular. Of course USTA is yelling for more, but that may land on deaf ears in Congress and state legislatures.
Said travel blogger Ryan ver Berkmoes: “The obvious solutions - bigger airports - are hard due to funding, local opposition, political deadlock etc. Everybody wants more airports, just not in their backyard. Airports will get a lot worse - much more crowded - before they get better."
What that means is that it now has become a survival skill to know how to navigate airports under the worst conditions, which may in fact become the norm.
In a dose of feedback, ver Berkmoes offered a pointed suggestion to airport operators that would help unclog airports in one simple step.
“All sorts of extra businesses are being crammed into concourses,” he said. He pointed to Chicago’s O’Hare where, he claimed, “United’s Terminal 1 is a top offender. When it opened in 1986, it had huge and wide central walking areas. But a lot of that space is now gone, even as passenger numbers soar. So what had been a passenger-friendly terminal is now passenger-unfriendly due to greed. Clear out all these stands - there is plenty of retail in the permanent shop areas and you’d uncrowd a crowded terminal.”
This is observable fact. Most airports now are mazes of stores, kiosks, pop-ups and getting from anywhere to anywhere else has become an exercise in dodging collisions. It does not have to be that way, if the airport operators decluttered the concourses. But that would cut their revenues and, honestly, no expert sees this coming soon. That puts the burden on you.
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As for what you can do, it starts by adding an hour to your planned arrival. Many road warriors now admit that they get to the airport a full two hours before departure for domestic flights (three for international), and that’s to allow a margin for Murphy’s law about things going wrong to play out. This matters, because, increasingly often, TSA security lines are molasses slow as too many confused travelers wrestle with admittedly ever changing rules.
While you are at that, buy your way into TSA Pre Check ($85 fee). Once approved, travelers jump into a special TSA security line that, generally, moves much faster and is also shorter.
Next step: use smaller airports wherever possible, advised Tom Spagnola, a senior vice president at CheapOair.com. When he flies to San Francisco, for example, he said he always flies into Oakland Airport, not San Francisco International. The reason: smaller airports often have smaller planes and also much smaller crowds.
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Third step: have a plan for gaining entry to an airport club. Various credit cards offer admission and when that fails, buy your way in (as much as $50). The tariff is worth it for the comparative quiet. Last step: never arrive at the airport without knowing your fallback options that will be invoked if your flight is cancelled or you miss it because security snared you.
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What’s your next best flight? Know that alternative flight before you get to the airport, because nowadays, you just may be on it.
-- Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet