Originally created 12/23/99

Revelers shy from holiday travel in '99



Millennium burnout may be keeping some holiday celebrants off the roads this year, when automobile travel is expected to dip for the first time in a decade and airlines are offering discounts to fill empty seats.

The 44.6 million Americans expected to drive to their destinations is only a 1 percent dip from last year's number, but it's the first drop in Christmas/New Year's travel since 1990, according to surveys by automobile service club AAA. The 45.2 million travelers in 1998 represented an all-time high.

And while Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport is expecting an increase of about 6 percent in passenger numbers, airlines nationwide are facing a surprisingly slow travel season. Many flights -- even in the days before Christmas -- still have available seats.

"I think everyone was expecting it to be so crowded, and some people didn't want to deal with that," said Yoli Buss, a spokeswoman for AAA South. "Everybody decided to stay home. I'm staying home."

High prices from hotels, cruises and airlines offering special packages designed to take advantage of the public's fascination with the new millennium also may have turned travelers off, said some travel-industry workers. Other would-be travelers have put off plans because of Y2K concerns.

Joe Hopkins, a spokesman for United Airlines, the nation's biggest carrier, said the airline is expecting slower business.

"I think Y2K is part of it, and the State Department warning didn't help," Mr. Hopkins said.

On Dec. 11, the State Department issued a warning urging Americans to exercise extreme caution during the final weeks of 1999 and the first days of the new year because of terrorism threats. The Federal Aviation Administration followed that up Tuesday by ordering tightened airport security.

Hartsfield, Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field and Columbia Metropolitan Airport all declined to talk about security measures because of safety concerns. But while it's a good idea for passengers to show up a little earlier than usual, they shouldn't have to go through any extra procedures before boarding their planes, said Tim Weegar, operations manager at Bush Field.

Motorists will face the highest holiday gas prices since 1990 -- nationally, prices are up more than 28 cents since last December. The national average for one gallon of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline is $1.31. Gas is least expensive in the Southeast, including Georgia and the Augusta area, where prices are hovering around $1.09 per gallon.

State patrol officers also will be out in force during the holidays, focusing on drunken drivers, officials said. The Georgia State Patrol is predicting 34 traffic fatalities during the two holiday periods, which run from 6 p.m. today to midnight Sunday and from 6 p.m. Dec. 30 to midnight Jan. 2.

The South Carolina Department of Public Safety doesn't make fatality predictions.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223.