Holiday air travel smooth except for storm-hit airports

CHICAGO Wed Nov 21, 2007 6:12pm EST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Thanksgiving air travel rush began in earnest on Wednesday with flights running smoothly for much of the day, but hitting turbulence later with storms and delays hitting some key airports.

Favorable weather throughout much of the country was the biggest plus for travelers as industry on-time performance ran at normal or near normal levels. But worsening winter conditions pushing across the Midwest and accelerated traffic volume gradually led to slow downs.

By evening, flights heading from the Northeast to Chicago O'Hare airport, where United Airlines is based, were grounded for an hour due to weather problems.

Delays at Newark airport in New Jersey, where Continental Airlines Inc has a hub, approached two hours and more than an hour at New York's LaGuardia, where US Airways Group Inc has major operations.

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the aging air traffic control system, a point of criticism for airlines, worked efficiently, but noted the late-day delays.

"It's all weather related," Spitaliere said.

The 12-day November holiday travel period is the busiest of the year and a crucial revenue generator for airlines struggling to blunt the affect of sky-high fuel prices. Oil prices per barrel continue to flirt with the $100 mark, but fell on Wednesday, pushing industry shares slightly higher.

Carriers expect to carry some 27 million people over the period -- 4 percent more than last year. Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, usually brings a travel rush. The real one-day crush is expected on Sunday, when travelers return home.

Delays have worsened this year due to exploding demand and airline over-scheduling at peak times. At times, the air traffic control system could not keep pace with the volume.

Airlines were nervous heading into November that worsening delays experienced during the summer vacation rush would carry into this week. Worries were especially acute for the New York area, which handles one-third of all airline traffic.

To ease pressure on the air traffic control network, the U.S. military cleared its coastal air space in the East for airlines from Wednesday to Sunday. Spitaliere said the FAA acquired access to it a few hours earlier than planned.

In addition, air controllers gave traffic priority to bigger airports around New York, creating some back-ups at secondary locations. The FAA also was prepared to slow flights around Boston and other New England states to ensure a smooth traffic flow in New York, if delays mounted in the East.

MINIMAL MELTDOWNS

Service meltdowns at JetBlue and American Airlines last winter, as well as deteriorating performance over the summer, tarnished the industry's reputation and prompted government and congressional scrutiny.

"We recognize the concern of our customers around these times and obviously there has been a lot of attention to this holiday in particular," said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for UAL Corp, parent of United Airlines.

In anticipation of higher traffic, airlines beefed up services, staff and flight schedules. Both United and American said they have made every effort to keep delays to a minimum.

"Today, we really expect things to go smoothly. We've got everything in place, weather is generally good around the system," AMR Corp spokesman Tim Wagner said.

Airline expert Terry Trippler at www.myvacationpassport.com said carriers were determined to clean up their sullied reputations.

"This is the most pro-active I have ever seen airlines going into a holiday season," he said. "They are hiring extra baggage handlers, extra ticket counter staffers, extra gate agents. Some even have extra planes and crews, just in case."

(Additional reporting by John Crawley in Washington, editing by Maureen Bavdek and Andre Grenon)

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