Dec. 21--Air travelers are donning non-threatening shoes. Security officials are fine-tuning new screening procedures. Families are awaiting that special visit, and not just from Santa.
The starting gun has sounded on South Florida's annual holiday exodus.
"This is my Christmas present," said Marilyn Rohr of Jensen Beach, who prepared to claim a first-class seat Tuesday on a flight out of Palm Beach International Airport, paid for with 50,000 frequent flier miles from her son.
Misplaced car keys caused Rohr to miss her initial flight to Atlanta. All seats were taken on the one she booked several hours later, so her son came to the rescue with a first-class bailout. "He's a good son," she said. "It's been horrible, but it's my own fault."
Rohr's bad travel experience was outside the norm Tuesday as crowds began to flow through South Florida airports. Lines moved steadily, and the atmosphere was unhurried as folks nestled on concourse sofas, played games on cell phones, tapped on laptops or snoozed.
"Pretty smooth," said Uhland Redd, 35, Weston, who cruised through a baggage check line at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "It's really not so bad."
Airport officials are already taking steps to ensure such efficient movement as the travel rush builds toward a crescendo in coming days. "It's starting to pick up," Fort Lauderdale airport spokesman Jim Reynolds said. "People are in a traveling mood."
To keep that mood in tune with the season, airports are bringing in extra workers, opening up overflow parking lots and streamlining security procedures. Navigating the Fort Lauderdale airport, travelers will be directed by signs and employees to temporary parking lots. At two grassy ones, which open Thursday, $10 will a buy a spot until Jan. 6. Passengers will be shuttled to terminals and should allow extra time for that.
A radio station, 1670 AM, will transmit parking information to drivers.
The Fort Lauderdale airport expects to accommodate up to 560,000 passengers through Monday, a 12 percent increase from last year's holiday season.
"People are back to flying now," Reynolds said. "The economy's pretty good; certainly the airfares are reasonable."
Monday, the day after Christmas, should be the busiest day of the season, Reynolds said. "Return day is generally the biggest for us," he said.
The Palm Beach airport processed almost 9,000 passengers Tuesday and expects to handle more than 10,000 on Thursday, its anticipated peak travel day, spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda said.
At Miami International Airport, spokesman Marc Henderson expects 1.8 million travelers between today and Jan. 6, a 3 percent increase from last year. Today and Thursday should see the rush peak. "We expect it to be crowded," Henderson said, promising that the construction that has bedeviled MIA travelers for years "won't be hindering anything at all."
Starting Thursday, relaxed standards for carry-on items should make security checks more efficient, Transportation Security Administration officials hope. Passengers may now bring small scissors and tools aboard and won't be submitted to as many footwear inspections. They can expect more random personal searches, however. Those pat-downs or hand-held metal-detector sweeps should only take about one minute, TSA officials said.
The thinking is that by eliminating low-threat items such as scissors, security officers can better concentrate on identifying suspicious individuals.
Toni Springer, 63, of Delray Beach, felt safer under the old rules. "I'm afraid again," she said as she chased a flight to Michigan from Fort Lauderdale. "Let's face it, a terrorist can kill you with scissors in your neck."
The change shouldn't deter many travelers, though, officials predict. Nor did a transit strike that shut down New York City's buses and subways keep folks home.
Random secondary screenings were dropped in 2003 because they were deemed too much of a hassle.
The TSA, which had about 1,700 passenger and luggage screeners this summer at MIA, decided it could make do with less.
About 3.2 million passengers are expected to go through the world's third-busiest airport from Dec. 16 to Jan. 2. That's down 2.2 percent from last year.
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