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LAX gears up for busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend

November 23, 2011 |  8:47 am

The big Thanksgiving getaway has begun, with more people expected to travel for the first time since the worst of the recession hit in 2008.

Los Angeles International Airport was already getting busy Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman said. For the 10-day Thanksgiving travel period,  about 1.78 million passengers were expected to fly out of LAX, a 16% increase from last year.

LAX was declared by Orbitz as the nation's busiest airport this Thanksgiving, beating out Chicago O'Hare, Orlando, San Francisco and Boston Logan for the top five. 

For the Los Angeles area, the good news is that the weather is fine Wednesday, but forecasters warned of a 20% chance of rain on Thanksgiving Day.

For those traveling to the East Coast, gusty winds and poor visibility were expected later Wednesday in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast areas, with heavy snow forecast for upper New England, according to the National Weather Service.

Travel on Southern California freeways is expected to increase this year, with 2.8 million people expected to travel by car for Thanksgiving weekend trips, a 4.1% rise from last year, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. 

Nationwide, about 42.5 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home this weekend. That's a 4% increase from 2010 but still a 16% decrease from the last pre-recession Thanksgiving in 2007, according to AAA

"Some Americans who may have put off their travel plans over the past few years have a strong intention to travel this year," the AAA Thanksgiving 2011 Travel Forecast said. Still, travel hasn't fully recovered since the recession, and "financial constraints are still holding back an immediate release for this 'pent-up demand' to travel."

Air travelers should expect particularly full flights this Thanksgiving because "airlines have begun to reduce capacity" over a desire to cut costs, said John Heimlich, vice president of the Air Transport Assn., in a statement. 

People are expected to stay closer to home compared to last year. The average distance traveled by Americans this Thanksgiving was expected to be 706 miles, down from last year's average of 816, AAA said. Airfares were predicted to be 20% higher for this Thanksgiving weekend, with the average lowest roundtrip rate at $212, AAA said.

Meanwhile, travelers at suburban airports could expect an easier time traveling. Three California airports made Orbitz's list of the five least-busy airports among the nation's top 50 facilities during Thanksgiving: San Jose (No. 1), John Wayne Airport in Orange County (No. 3), and Sacramento (No. 5).

[Updated at 9:35 a.m.: Even less busy were airports that didn't make the top 50 list, including Burbank, Oakland, Ontario and Long Beach.]

The heaviest hours at LAX are from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., then from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Officials recommend passengers arrive two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.

CHP Officer Rick Quintero urged motorists to be patient and attentive and designate sober drivers. The CHP is heightening patrols through the holiday weekend, and will target drinkers, speeders and unbuckled motorists.

Last year, 21 people died on roadways in California, and the CHP made 1,500 arrests over the holiday weekend.


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--- Rong-Gong Lin II


Caption: Thanksgiving travelers check their bags with a skycap at LAX. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times