Tips for succesful air travel on Thanksgiving

22.11.2010 In: Travel tips

Thanksgiving travelers have a lot to digest this year, and we're not just talking turkey. More of us are taking to the skies than last year at this time, experts say. Aside from the usual holiday hassles of jammed jets and fickle winter weather, we'll be navigating new body scanners and pat-down procedures at airport security checkpoints.

Here's how to keep Turkey Day travel worries from gobbling up your fun and finances:

Crowded planes: Airlines expect to handle 3.5% more passengers during this year's Thanksgiving holiday season than they did last year, filling nearly 90% of their seats on peak days (this year, Nov. 19, 24, 28 and 29), according to the Air Transport Assn. But that's no reason to panic.

"Some Fridays in the summer can be nearly as busy," ATA spokeswoman Laura Goodwin said.

The difference between flying 90% and 85% full (as airlines averaged in August, the U.S. Department of Transportation said) amounts to just seven seats on a 137-seat Boeing 737-700. That's no big deal, said industry analyst Mike Boyd , president of Boyd Group International in Evergreen, Colo.

"Airplanes have been jampacked for years," he said. And only about 5% more flight departures are scheduled for Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, than for the prior Wednesday, according to Executive Travel SkyGuide and Seabury APG.

But the holiday brings more traveling families, more carry-ons, more checked bags and fewer no-shows than on a typical day, Boyd said. Mix in a snowstorm or two, and you've got a recipe for crowd anxiety and traffic snarls. Miss your flight, and you may owe hefty change fees and fare differences.

Tip: Get to the airport early and be ready to wait.

Losing your seat: Despite packed cabins — August's percentage of filled seats was the highest ever recorded for that month — fewer people are getting bumped off flights. The rate of "involuntary denied boarding," as the DOT calls it, has fallen by 6% over the last year. Still, the risk can rise at peak travel times.

Overbooking planes is legal but not unregulated. If you lose your seat, you may be entitled to as much as $800 in compensation in addition to a free ticket. (A DOT proposal to raise the limit to $1,300 is pending.) Airlines must ask for volunteers before they bump unwilling passengers, but given packed holiday planes, I'd avoid opting for that.

Who gets bumped? Low-fare fliers and those who check in late may be the most vulnerable, the DOT says.

Tip: "Get your boarding pass as quickly as you can, because when you have a pass, that seat is taken out of inventory and you can be assured of getting a seat," Boyd said.

Trapped on a plane: Not as bad as snakes on a plane, but a pain nonetheless, and more likely during bad weather.

Under laws that took effect in April, long tarmac delays may be less painful. U.S. airlines must let passengers off the plane after three hours or face potentially huge fines, and they must provide food, water and working bathrooms while they're stuck.

Tip: Know your rights during flight delays (and also bumping). A useful guide is "Fly Rights,", from the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Print it out or bookmark it on your smart phone before you head out.

Tighter security: At many airport checkpoints this year, you'll find new advanced imaging technology, popularly known as full-body scanning, that uses X-rays to detect non-metallic and metallic objects.

In a change from past practice, "you must take everything out of your pocket and off your person," not just coins and other metal, to walk through the scanners, said Nico Melendez, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

As of early November, 385 of the new machines had been deployed at 68 airports, including LAX. The TSA says the X-rays are safe and the images are anonymous —claims challenged by the Allied Pilots Assn. and the American Civil Liberties Union.

You can decline to go through the scanner, the TSA says, but if you do, you'll be subjected to a pat-down, recently changed to allow screeners to probe around sensitive body parts.

Tip: Decide in advance how you want to be screened.