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Stick a Fork in the Sky

Thanksgiving travel this year is for the birds, assuming they get clearance from air traffic control.

By 11.23.04

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VIRGINIA -- In the movie Independence Day, David Levinson, the brilliant but eccentric cable repairman played by Jeff Goldblum, bums a ride with his father to Washington, D.C. The old man's beater is the only car on the freeway in the D.C.-bound lanes, but those fleeing the nation's capital are stuck in bumper-to-bumper, horn-honking, fist-pounding, road-raging traffic.

There was no spaceship hovering over the White House when I boarded the airplane in Chicago -- the third leg of my 12-hour trip from Bellingham airport to Reagan-Norquist National -- but something was amiss. Having shuttled back and forth over the continent for the last year plus change, I am by now what you might call very bi-coastal.

As such, I have some feeling for how full flights should be, and the seating was far too spaced out for this time of the year. Fly to D.C. in August if you're claustrophobic. By November, expect close quarters or pay for first class.

This windfall of legroom wasn't troubling but it was extremely curious. The prop plane from Bellingham to Seattle was completely full, the 757 to Chicago had been tightly packed, and the D.C. leg was hardly the red eye.

When I awoke from my usual in-flight trance-like stupor on the Seattle to Chicago leg to see the guy next to me pass a barf bag to a male flight attendant, I wondered if I'd be the recipient of projectile vomiting later in the flight. But the steward -- God bless him -- did find a way to carve out room for my sick seatmate further back in the cabin.

If it had happened on the way to D.C., the guy could have had a buffer zone of several rows, no problem.

I FOUND THIS ALL very odd because, with many major airlines teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy, the overall number of flights has dropped. It's not yet a seller's market but flights most everywhere tend to be full or nearly full.

What, I wondered, as I waited nearly an hour for my checked luggage to come off of the conveyer belt, and again on the cab ride to my old Fairfax townhouse, as night work brought traffic to a crawl, could account for the paucity of passengers this time?

The first stab at an answer came via a front page story from Friday's Northern Virginia Journal, the free tabloid that I was handed while heading into the local Metro station. Headline: "Thanksgiving travel to be 'horrible.'"

The report said that transportation experts expect that holiday travel this time will surpass pre-September 11 levels to set a new record. Over 37 million Americans are expected to travel via plane or automobile more than 50 miles from their homes to visit relations or friends.

Nationally, that will represent a 3.1 percent increase over last year. Locally, it gets worse: "A record 676,000 Washington-area residents, 4.5 percent more than last year, are expected to converge on roads and in airports, this upcoming holiday week," reported staff writer Michael Neibauer.

So: It looks like I flew in just as everybody was starting home for the holidays, in anticipation of a record exodus. Turkey this year will be served with a side of road rage, and an extra helping of airport security to go with the cranberry salad.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.