Thanksgiving got here early for the airlines --- but they're finding it hard to be thankful.
The ban by security authorities against carrying liquids and gels in carry-on bags has saddled airlines with up to 40 percent more checked baggage. That's forced them to add manpower at extra cost to handle it.
"We've just implemented the holiday plan in August," said AirTran Vice President Tad Hutcheson. "Long term, it's probably going to cost us more. We're probably going to have to add people."
The Transportation Security Administration banned items such as bottled drinks, toothpaste and shampoo in cabins after British authorities foiled a terrorist plot last week involving liquid explosives. The TSA has not said how long the new restrictions will be in place.
Delta Air Lines, which advised customers to check their luggage as a way to speed up security screening lines, saw its volume of checked baggage jump about 40 percent late last week, though the crush has subsided a bit since then.
AirTran says checked luggage volume is up about 20 percent.
The sudden shift in passenger behavior --- Delta now carries an average of 1.3 checked bags per passenger, up from 0.9 before --- hit airlines with extra costs and operational headaches at a time when they are striving to boost efficiency.
Both airlines have been scheduling baggage-handling staff to work overtime or extra part-time shifts, much as they do during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays.
"Right off the bat, everyone went pretty much into emergency mode," said Greg Kennedy, vice president in charge of Delta's Atlanta hub operations.
The high tide of luggage has also caused some customers to wait hours before claiming their bags at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Hundreds of passengers faced long waits at baggage carousels Wednesday evening as airlines scrambled to keep up. Some complained that luggage was showing up almost randomly on various baggage carousels, and that few airline employees were available or could answer questions.
At other times, the problem is less apparent. Tuesday morning, most travelers' lines, including those at AirTran's passenger check-in counters, security screening and baggage carousels, were relatively short.
Still, about a dozen people were lined up at Delta's customer service desk to file baggage complaints, not far from a pile of unclaimed suitcases.
Jeff Booth said he was pleasantly surprised how short the security line was Tuesday when he flew from Dallas to Atlanta on a business trip.
"I expected the worst, and so far it wasn't that bad," said Booth. He said he checked his bag, which he usually takes as a carry-on, and got to the Dallas airport early because of the new security rules, but few people were in line. "I wasted an extra hour," he said.
But after waiting almost another hour for his bag upon arriving in Atlanta, a no-longer-happy Booth headed for Delta's customer service desk. "They said [to] go file a claim," he grumbled.
Kennedy, the Delta airport manager, said the number of misplaced bags surged initially, causing a costly increase in courier deliveries to customers' homes or businesses.
"I know our baggage delivery company was pretty much overwhelmed," he said.
Kennedy said extra staffing and smoother operations, including shorter security screening lines, have since eliminated most lost baggage problems.
"We have managed out of it pretty well," he said.
AirTran this week also went back to its usual suggestion that Atlanta customers arrive 90 minutes before their flights. Delta lowered its suggested arrival time from three hours late last week, after the new security rules were put in place, to two hours.
Calyon Securities analyst Ray Neidl said the new rules will add "a little bit" to carriers' costs and displace some revenue-generating cargo, but added that they could have a silver lining for passengers.
"I think the system will adapt," he said. "The nice part about it is it's probably going to constrain carry-ons somewhat and make the process of boarding and de-boarding simpler. I think everyone will be happier."
AirTran said that with carry-on volume down, its average time to board planes was down four minutes, helping improve on-time performance.
NEW SECURITY RULES
* All gels, liquids and aerosols, including toothpaste and shampoo, are banned from carry-on baggage, with a few exceptions.
* Allowed items include baby formula or breast milk, 4 oz. of non-prescription medicine, 5 oz. of glucose or juice for diabetics, and gel-filled medical prosthetics.
* Shoes must be removed and X-rayed. Gel inserts are prohibited.
* Random security checks also are being done at boarding gates.
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