Airports in South Fla. Seem Ready for the Holiday Rush

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.

"We haven't felt too much effects of it," Katrina Kirsch of Liberty Travel in Fort Lauderdale said of the strike. This time of year, she said, travelers tend to fly from cold New York to sunny Florida.

Ricki Blank of Traveleaders in Boca Raton said her office hasn't fielded a single call from someone worried about the strike. Most South Floridians trekking north are going to visit family, not heading to Manhattan, where the strike is most severe. "It's not really affecting them," Blank said.

But no traveler can escape the weather. A winter storm is now building over the Plains States, said meteorologist Bob Pifer, of the National Weather Service in Miami-Dade County. "It'll be starting about Friday night in the middle part of the country and moving east, hitting the eastern part of the country on Christmas," Pifer said. "Some people, I would say in the Ohio Valley or the Midwest, will probably have a white Christmas."

Those taking flights home early next week could see their travel plans affected by the storm, but not severely. "Depending on where they are, the weather could be rain or snow, low ceiling and visibility for the ones that are flying," the forecaster said.

But one holiday flier, who travels by sleigh, isn't likely to be deterred.

By Robert Nolin and Nancy Othon

Staff Writer Sean Gardiner contributed to this report.

TIPS

Don't wrap presents. Security officers must open them.

Check with your airline for how early you should arrive. Two hours for holiday domestic flights is often recommended, and even earlier for international flights.

Wear shoes that can be easily taken off and put on.

Keep cameras, undeveloped film, jewelry, laptops and other valuables in carry-on bags.

Avoid wearing jewelry or accessories with enough metal to set off detectors.

Do not bring lighters.

Closely follow posted instructions at checkpoints about what to do with keys, mobile phones, cameras, notebook computers and other items.

Scissors shorter than 4 inches and such tools as screwdrivers under 7 inches are now OK in carry-ons.

RESOURCES

www.fly.faa.gov

Gives the status of airports and delays around the country.

www.broward .org/airport

For information on Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

www.pbia.org

For information on Palm Beach County International Airport.

www.tsa.gov

For a complete list of prohibited items

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