Just in time for the holidays: somewhat friendlier skies.
Over the past several weeks, federal agencies have taken strides to make air travel slightly less miserable for consumers by relaxing rules on the use of electronics in flight and ushering more people into trusted-traveler programs.
“I think those are big conveniences for people,” said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. “And those are some of the first changes of that kind that we’ve seen — a change that’s pro-consumer vs. pro-airline.”
The impact for air passengers this busy Thanksgiving and Hanukkah travel season could mean a little less hassle in security lines and in the air, though a storm system bearing down on the East Coast is threatening to add plenty of weather-related worries.
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While almost 300 American Airlines and American Eagle flights in and out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport were canceled on Monday because of the weather system, South Florida airports did not suffer major disruptions. But spokesmen for airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale said they expected to see delays and cancellations Tuesday and Wednesday, one of the busiest travel days of the year.
According to a forecast from AAA, 43.4 million Americans are expected to travel — mostly by road — 50 or more miles from home between Wednesday and the Monday after Thanksgiving. That’s a slight drop from last year’s 44 million travelers.
Miami International Airport expects more than 900,000 passengers from Monday through Dec. 2, a slight increase over the same period last year. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport anticipates more than 528,000 travelers from Sunday to Dec. 1, though the number of available seats is down by 2 percent from 2012.
For those air travelers, a few new rules could make the journey more pleasant.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced last month that electronic devices would no longer need to be turned off during takeoff or landing as long as airlines showed that their planes could safely operate while passengers used their gadgets. So far, carriers including American Airlines, US Airways, Delta, United, Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America have given travelers the go-ahead, at least on some flights.
Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for Hudson Crossing, a consultancy, called electronics use a “nice privilege to have now.”
“Especially for parents traveling with children, I think this will be a godsend because the first few minutes of a flight are probably when kids are the most antsy,” he said.
Before travelers even get onto a plane, a program that once eased screening rules for a limited number of travelers is growing. The Transportation Security Administration has been expanding its TSA PreCheck program, which gives certain passengers access to expedited screening lines; the agency plans to expand the program even more going into 2014.
Initially, just those who were invited by participating airlines at certain airports were allowed to take advantage of TSA PreCheck, which lets travelers submit detailed information and fingerprints for a background check. In exchange, they usually are able to leave their shoes, belts and light outerwear on and keep their laptops and liquids in carry-on bags. Now, 100 airports participate, and Southwest and JetBlue just joined.
Then, people who enrolled in the Customs and Border Protection trusted-traveler program could also opt into the TSA version. Travelers 75 and older and 12 and younger were also given the OK for expedited screening, as well as members of the U.S. military.
The agency will soon start offering an online application for TSA PreCheck at a cost of $85 for five years.
Even now, passengers are being randomly selected to go through the expedited lane because they have already entered their name, gender and date of birth before getting a boarding pass. That allows security officials to check them against lists of travelers who might need extra attention.
Every day, a certain number of people who haven’t opted in to the program are pre-screened and sent to a quicker lane, said Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman
“People love it,” she said. “On that day for that flight, they come to the travel document checker and the checker will see that, verify it, then send them to the ‘happy lane.’ ” More than 25 percent of travelers go through some kind of expedited TSA screening already.
Koshetz said the programs also have a security benefit. “As we pre-screen people before they get to the checkpoint and know more about them, that leaves us to focus more time on people we know less about.”
Frequent business traveler Melissa Good, of Pembroke Pines, became part of TSA PreCheck after joining the CBP’s Global Entry program. She said the experience is great when it works as intended.
Trying to move things along for U.S. and Canadian citizens arriving from international destinations, Miami International Airport recently added 36 self-service passport kiosks in the immigration area. “Passport Express” allows travelers to go to an automated station instead of a Customs and Border Protection agent. While an agent will still need to check a receipt, airport officials expect that interaction to take just 15 seconds.
For Andrew Goldberg, vice president of marketing at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the best thing about traveling this Thanksgiving is something no federal agency, airport or airline can take credit for. Thanks to a never-before-seen confluence of calendars, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fall during the same time — which means Goldberg gets to spend both holidays with his extended family.
“I usually do travel for Thanksgiving to be with family,” said Goldberg, 39, who will head with his wife to the Boston area on Wednesday. “It’s just really, really nice that it’s happening to coincide with Hanukkah this year so that we can celebrate throughout the trip.”
This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press. The story includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.