"We're dealing with a major crisis coming up. This summer is going to be hell."
That's the opinion of Aram Gesar, editor in chief of AirGuide for the Frequent Flyer and www.airguideonline.com. About 207 million passengers—the most in 40 years—are set to go through the country's airports over the next three months, according to the Air Transport Association of America, an airline trade organization headquartered in Washington. That figure is 3.5% higher than last year and 12% above the summer of 2001.
Which airports will be the most crowded? Judging from Memorial Day weekend, projected figures, and history, hubs like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—the most passenger-heavy in the world—Chicago's O'Hare, London's Heathrow, and the Los Angeles International Airport will not be pretty.
From April, 2005, to April, 2006, traffic in all U.S. airports—excluding ones in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City—rose, according to Airports Council Intl., a Geneva-based international airport association. The three that experienced losses were hubs for Delta Air Lines (DALRQ), which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last fall and lowered domestic and increased international capacity to become profitable. Despite a predicted passenger loss of 2.52%, Hartsfield-Jackson will definitely be the top place to avoid this summer. "There's no way Chicago will top Atlanta [in terms of passenger numbers] in the short term," says Paul Behnke, director of economics and statistics for ACI.
AVOID HUBS. Airports in popular vacation cities will also be packed. With gas prices on the rise, an improving economy, and less fear about security and the war in Iraq, Americans are getting back in the traveling spirit. This season, Orlando and Las Vegas are among the top domestic spots for Expedia, Orbitz, and Cheap Tickets users. Rome, London, Cancun, and Paris will be extremely popular international destinations.
The No. 1 goal this summer should be avoiding airport hubs altogether. Travelers from the New York City area should try to avoid Newark Liberty, JFK, or La Guardia, and opt for Philadelphia. Passengers passing through the D.C. area should choose Baltimore/Washington Intl. over Dulles or Reagan National Airport. London's Heathrow will be a killer, so the smaller Manchester, Gatwick, and Luton are safer bets for those going to Britain. Going in and out of Germany? Try Munich instead of Frankfurt.
The smaller airports are often serviced by low-cost carriers. In the U.S., try airlines like Southwest Airlines (LUV) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) and overseas, easyJet and Ryanair overseas.
BOOK EARLY FLIGHTS. To combat crowds, several large airports have implemented measures targeted at making traffic flow more smoothly. Los Angeles, Orlando International Airport, and Dulles requested additional screeners from the Transportation Security Administration. Orlando—which has about 850 flights per day—also hired bag handlers from a private vendor to move, but not screen, luggage. Reno-Tahoe International Airport is employing extra staff to guide customers through the airport, made more crowded by travelers' golf equipment.
If steering clear of airport hubs is impossible, travelers should fly out as early as possible and avoid late-afternoon flights, since that's when thunderstorms often pop up, says Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch and a 20-year industry veteran. Morning departures less likely to be affected by backed-up traffic and passengers than afternoon or evening flights.
GRIN AND BEAR IT. Whatever time you fly, don't count on being able to stretch out. Planes are expected to be 80% to 90% full. Passenger numbers are up this summer by about 3.5%, but 2% fewer seats are available. Also, physical seat space will be tighter, mainly because smaller, regional jets have replaced many larger planes. And the more people getting on a plane, the more chances for some kind of delay.
The absence of free food and other once-standard items may also grate on travelers. "It used to be that you could get a deck of cards, wings for the kids, and a hot meal. That's not the case anymore," McGinnis says. "But as much as you hear people lamenting, it's a kind of grin and bear it and get through the day of flying mentality."
This summer, patience will be the No. 1 travel accessory.