WASHINGTON — Commercial airliners will be able to fly unused military airspace to accommodate an unprecedented number of people traveling for Thanksgiving, President Bush announced Thursday.
The additional airspace runs from Maine to Florida. The Federal Aviation Administration will also place a moratorium on its non-essential projects, Bush said in his prepared remarks, allowing its employees to focus on limiting delays.
The decision benefits travelers using Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Maryland’s major airport, but not as much as it helps more delay-prone airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, said Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman.
“It will benefit us, certainly, but BWI is typically a low-delay airport,” Dean said. “Of all the airports serving the Northeast, we have the lowest amount of delays this year.”
About 490,000 travelers are expected to use BWI from Nov. 19-26, a .25 percent increase over the 2006 Thanksgiving season, Dean said. Airport officials predict Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving, will be the busiest, with about 74,000 travelers.
The changes will also be in place during the equally busy Christmas travel season, Bush said.
Nationally, a record-setting 27 million passengers are expected to fly over 12 days beginning Friday, a 4 percent increase over 2006. Planes will be about 90 percent full, leaving little room for those who miss flights.
Delays at airports have been worse this year than any year since the FAA began tracking them in 1995. Nationally, about 26.8 percent of all flights were late between January and September, according to FAA statistics. BWI faired slightly better, with delays in 23.4 percent of flights.
Bush’s announcement came the same day as a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on holiday air travel and another subcommittee held a hearing on a 2006 report that said federal investigators had little problem smuggling bomb-making liquids onto planes.
Richard Anderson, the Delta Air Lines chief, said antiquated aviation security systems keep airlines and the Transportation Security Administration struggling to keep up with an increasing number of passengers.
“You travel with GPS when you use automobiles,” Anderson said. “We still don’t. We’re still using the same system we were 50 years ago.”
To prepare for next week, Delta will use an “all hands on deck” mentality through Nov. 26, Anderson said. The airline has added dozens of flights between Saturday and Thanksgiving.
David Barger, head of JetBlue Airways, said it’s also important to actively communicate with customers, especially when the number of infrequent flyers spikes near the holidays.
“It takes a different kind of preparation because it’s a different kind of passenger,” he said.
As head of JetBlue, Barger said he was “unsurprised” that he was asked to testify, given that JetBlue made national headlines last February after angry passengers were kept on a runway in bad weather for 11 hours.
“To be candid,” he said, “We failed them.”
In the airport security hearing, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, lashed out at TSA Administrator Edmund “Kip” Hawley for downplaying TSA’s failure to find the liquids.
“Next week, as Americans travel to spend Thanksgiving with their loved ones, they deserve the assurance that the hours spent standing in security lines will be effective in protecting them from becoming victims in terrorist attacks,” Cummings said, according to a prepared statement. “It is unfathomable to me that TSA does not seem to comprehend the urgency in immediately addressing these serious security breaches.”