Get to the airport early.
That’s the word from officials at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, who are warning people to prepare for near-record crowds and long lines during Thanksgiving week, typically the busiest of the year.
And change is afoot: This is the first Thanksgiving since US Airways and American Airlines merged their operations. It’s also the first since the airport’s new entrance roadway opened and traffic patterns shifted.
“The airlines are also reporting they’ll be near capacity,” said Herbert Judon, assistant aviation director of operations at Charlotte Douglas. Travel demand has been strong: Last month, American reported that 85.2 percent of its seats were full, up 3 percentage points from the same month a year ago and a company record for October.
Don’t expect bargain airfares: The average domestic airfare from Charlotte was almost $464 in the first quarter this year, the most recent quarter for which national data was available. That’s up 7 percent from the same quarter last year, and 19 percent higher than the national average of $388.
The single busiest day for local travelers flying out of Charlotte Douglas was the Friday after the 2012 Democratic National Convention, when 29,000 local passengers departed from Charlotte (That doesn’t count the 100,000 or so daily connecting passengers who make up the bulk of Charlotte Douglas travelers but just change planes in the airport and don’t go through security).
Judon said he doesn’t know whether the airport will surpass that total this year, but he expects it to come close. The busiest days are typically the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
If you’re headed to the airport, here are five things you can do to cope with the rush:
1. Allow extra time: Give yourself two hours before your flight, officials suggested. Security lines are expected to be long, and the terminal will be crowded with families and infrequent fliers who might not be familiar with security procedures.
Airport officials wouldn’t discuss security procedure changes in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and an airline bombing in Egypt, but you can expect security to be heightened this year.
2. Be prepared for changes: The airport’s entrance road is new, and many of this Thanksgiving’s leisure travelers likely haven’t driven on it since it opened this spring. The new traffic pattern is all one-way, with cars flowing in and out on a loop road that’s clearly marked and accessible from Wilkinson Boulevard, Interstate 85 and Billy Graham Parkway.
“Getting to and from the airport should be easier this year,” said Judon.
The airport’s rental cars have moved into the hourly parking deck, which opened last year, which means fewer commercial shuttles will be on the road since customers can now walk to and from the car rental agencies.
3. Remember, US Airways is no more: All travelers will be on American this year, instead of US Airways. The companies completed merging their operations last month. No major problems have been reported so far with the integration, but small differences could still trip travelers up. For example, US Airways allowed customers to check in with their last name at kiosks. American uses a confirmation number, AAdvantage frequent flier number or a credit card.
4. Don’t bring a gun. Seriously. Law enforcement officials said most guns caught at checkpoints are in a bag someone forgot to go through before packing. Same goes for knives and other weapons. You can face criminal charges and civil penalties if you bring a weapon to the airport.
It happens more than you might think: On a single day, Oct. 30, Transportation Security Administration found two handguns in carry-on bags at Charlotte Douglas.
5. Check parking online at parking.charlotteairport.com before you head out. Judon said Charlotte Douglas should have enough parking for all customers, but the lots are on a first-come, first-served basis, and the long-term lots – which are cheaper – will likely fill to capacity. The airport is reopening the Daily North lot for an additional 1,200 spaces, but the daily spaces are more expensive.
Parking costs are as follows: $5 per day in the long-term lots, $8 per day in the Daily North lot, $10 per day in the daily decks, $14 per day in the business valet deck, $20 per day in the hourly deck and $28 per day for curbside valet.
The first hour of parking is free in the hourly parking deck in front of the terminal, so you can park there and wait for or drop off travelers at the airport. There are also cellphone lots where you can wait for passengers near the terminal off the airport loop road.
If possible, the airport encourages people to use an alternate way to get to the airport, such as the Sprinter bus, a taxi or getting dropped off by someone. Check the Sprinter schedule at charlottecentercity.org/transportation/sprinter/.