Declines expected for holiday travel

From Staff Reports

   Travel during the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to decline by 6 percent over last year, but the number of Americans traveling by car should dip by less than 2 percent, according to a recent AAA poll.
   "With all the recent doom and gloom in the travel industry, a 6 percent drop is a definite improvement from the double-digit declines of the last two months," said AAA Travel Vice President Sandra Hughes.
   AAA estimates that 34.6 million Americans plan to travel at least 50 miles from home this holiday as compared to 36.8 million who took a trip last Thanksgiving.
   Thirty million of those travelers plan to go by motor vehicle, a 1.6 percent decline from a year ago, when 30.5 million traveled by car.
   The percentage of travelers taking cars this year -- 87 percent -- is, however, the highest ever recorded by AAA. Last Thanksgiving, 83 percent traveled by car.
   "Obviously, the number of people traveling is down for a number of reasons, the main reason being the attacks of Sept. 11," said Wendy Bishop, Tri-Cities' communication specialist for AAA. "People are staying closer to home since the attacks, but they are still traveling. Most are traveling by car to a destination within a day's drive from home."
   This season, motorists nationwide will find a significant reduction in gas prices, which have declined drastically from May's all time record average of $1.72 cents per gallon. Since Sept. 7, the average price per gallon of gas has dropped 32.2 cents, according to industry analysts.
   The national weighted average price of gas, including taxes, was roughly $1.20 cents per gallon of regular on Friday. Prices in the Tri-Cities currently range between $1.04 cents and $1.10.
   Analysts say that weak demand and low oil costs have helped to push prices down. AAA VP Hughes hopes that bad news for OPEC will translate into good news for the American travel industry.
   "Falling gasoline prices were the catalyst that helped spark the 1991 travel recovery after the Gulf War," said Hughes. "We believe lower gas prices will provide a similar catalyst in coming months.
   "But the real challenge comes in trying to rebuild the public's confidence in air travel," said Hughes, who hopes that aviation safety legislation signed Monday by President Bush will bolster confidence in the air industry.
   Tri-Cities Regional Airport Marketing Director Melissa Thomas said Monday that traffic at TCRA this Thanksgiving is expected to be considerably lighter than last year, but that the airport does plan to see a dramatic increase in customers by comparison to the past two months.
   "All of the carriers I've spoken to say that booking has been strong for Thanksgiving," Thomas said. "Traffic should be much heavier than what we've seen over the past couple of months."
   Thomas said that holiday travelers should arrive earlier than usual to the airport and should be prepared to show photo identification both at the check-in counter and at the gate.
   "Anyone taking presents home for the holidays should leave them unwrapped, since all carry-on bags will be inspected, and all luggage is still subject to random hand searches," Thomas said. "The best advice I can give is that everyone should be prepared to exercise patience."
   With expectations of crowded highways, AAA representatives say that drivers will also need to exercise patience, especially in the Southeast, where traffic is projected to be heaviest.