Holiday travelers crowd airports, unfazed by tighter security

Saturday, December 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Holiday travelers and airlines were prepared for the worst during one of the year's busiest weeks for air travel. Instead, many are finding themselves pleasantly surprised.

Passengers expected snarled security checkpoints after the week began with a passenger's alleged attempt to ignite explosives in his sneakers in midflight. Many were asked to put their shoes through X-ray machines and shuffle through metal detectors in their socks.

Yet, like Nancy Franger of Elkhart, Ind., many said it was ``smooth sailing'' compared to previous years.

Franger didn't mind when baggage screeners at O'Hare International Airport confiscated her nail clippers and files on Friday as she headed to Keystone, Colo., for a week-long ski trip with her husband and three sons.

``I'm glad they caught that stuff,'' she said.

At New York's LaGuardia Airport, a middle-aged teacher was asked to finish her cup of coffee by a baggage screener, concerned something could be hidden inside. A 78-year-old woman with a pacemaker was hand-frisked at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.

Still, air travelers said security lines weren't as bad as they'd expected, and jitters didn't keep as many people away as some had predicted. Several major carriers said planes were 90 percent full at their peak _ about as packed as jetliners ever get and better than the 85 percent forecast by the Air Transport Association, the industry's Washington-based trade group.

For the week ending Dec. 27, passenger volumes were down roughly 11 percent from a year ago, better than the 17 percent the industry was predicting, said David Swerienga, the group's chief economist.

``It has been better than we would have thought four to six weeks ago,'' said John Tague, chief executive officer of American Trans Air, the nation's 10th-largest carrier and one of a handful of low-cost, low-fare airlines that have outperformed the rest of the industry lately.

But demand remains weak: the entire industry is operating with an average of 16 percent fewer available seats because of schedule cuts made after Sept. 11. The largest carriers are not likely to report profits until next summer, at the earliest, because they continue to lure passengers with extremely cheap fares, said Ray Neidl, airline analyst at ABN Amro.

In the days before and after Christmas, check-in lines were often backed up, and boarding gates were crowded with passengers who arrived early and then found check-in and security screening took less time than expected, said Matt Buckley, Southwest Airline's senior director of ground operations.

``It's like a snake swallowing an elephant, at times,'' he said.

The amount of time passengers spent waiting to check in or have their bags X-rayed ranged from several minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the time of day, the airport, and even the terminal.

Crowds were everywhere at Denver International Airport _ from check-in to baggage claim areas _ but waits were typically no more than 20 minutes.

``Passengers are patient, and workers are just doing a great job moving people through the lines,'' said Mike Bowers, vice president of stations operations for Frontier Airlines. ``Believe it or not, it's been a good couple of weeks.''

Some passengers, like 44-year-old Mike Fredrickson, an artist who lives in Milwaukee, said the heightened scrutiny may prompt them to drive for future trips.

But performing arts instructor Jim Hutchinson, 51, of Fort Worth, Texas, said he didn't mind removing his cowboy hat, boots and belt buckle as part of the screening process at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

``I'm kind of shocked things were so lax before,'' Hutchinson said. ``It's crowded. Check-in takes a few minutes. What's the big deal?''