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If you're flying, leave the fancy wrapping for when you get there

Some of the ho ho is a no-no this season as security overshadows the merry bustle as off to grandmother's house we go.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001

Some of the ho ho is a no-no this season as security overshadows the merry bustle as off to grandmother's house we go.

TAMPA -- It might be easier to get airline reservations this holiday season -- but it will remain a pain to get aboard.

In addition to the usual litany of warnings about arriving at the airport at least two hours early and checking any sharp objects that might be construed as potential weapons, there's a new twist for Christmas: Don't wrap presents, even if you are checking them in luggage destined for the cargo hold.

"You can't carry wrapped packages aboard, but that's always been true," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "Security will unwrap and inspect them. But this year, we're telling people not to wrap presents they check, either. More and more luggage is being searched, and wrapped packages in checked bags will be opened."

The Air Transport Association, the airline industry group, takes the caution a step farther.

"Ship the gifts ahead, if you possibly can," said Diana Cronin, ATA spokeswoman. "The thing you absolutely don't want to do is to try to carry them aboard. People should remember that carryons are strictly limited now."

The Federal Aviation Administration allows only one carryon, plus a personal item such as purse or briefcase, per person.

The cautions about gifts, limited carryons, security stops and searches and the need for government-issued ID such as a driver's license or passport might kick the stuffing out of the holiday spirit, but officials insist it is for everyone's safety and peace of mind.

One move that would speed the boarding process is to pack any electronic equipment that won't be needed during the flight. Security requires passengers to demonstrate that each piece of equipment works. Every cellular phone, CD player, computer and video game that has to be checked slows the screening process.

ATA forecasts that between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, 40-million people will fly somewhere. The peak days, expected to exceed 2-million passengers each, will be today, Friday and Saturday of this week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week, and Wednesday, Jan. 2.

AAA Auto Club South says airline tickets sales at its offices have reached 88 percent of last year's levels, the highest level since the terrorist attacks.

"The airlines are saying that a lot of people are holding off to the last minute to book flights," Miller said. "That could be good news if it means people who had planned to stay home for the holidays are changing their minds."

Nationwide, ATA says, passenger traffic was off in November by 20 percent compared to November of last year. But the picture at Tampa International Airport is better.

"We were off 13.7 percent in November, and we feel pretty good about that," Miller said.

A breakdown of passenger traffic last month shows dramatically different results for the airport's three largest tenants, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways.

Southwest, which carries more passengers at TIA than any other airline, showed an increase in passenger traffic over November 2000, up 13.3 percent.

"But they've added a lot of new service in the last year, so that helped them," Miller said.

Delta was off 13.1 percent. US Airways was down 36.3 percent, due in large measure to reduced service at its Washington Reagan National Airport hub and the phasing out of its low-fare carrier, MetroJet.

"One of the good-news stories was JetBlue, which was up 11 percent without any additional new service at all," Miller said. "They're really penetrating that New York market."

Another low-fare carrier, Air Tran also was up slightly, as was America West and United Airlines.

"We're going into Christmas thinking it's going to look a lot like Thanksgiving," Miller said. "Airline flight cutbacks have cost us 6.7 percent of the seats we had last year, and our best guess is that business will be off 7 to 10 percent. All parking facilities will be open, and we'll have people out helping people find spaces."

Once again, TIA doesn't plan to open its Holiday Lot, a vacant field on the south end of the airport.

"We will be ready to open it if necessary, but we didn't need it at Thanksgiving, and we don't expect to need it this month," Miller said.

As always, people who opt to drive will find the highways jammed, but AAA Auto Club South has an encouraging word about the cost of gasoline. Across the grades, prices have fallen about 10 cents a gallon in the last month. The Tampa Bay area and Orlando tie for the lowest prices in Florida?

The average cost of regular here is just over $1 a gallon, and a few stations are selling it for as little as 91 cents. The average price of mid-grade here is $1.12 and premium is selling for about $1.14.

Across the state, the average is $1.11, $1.20 and $1.22.

The highest prices are in the West Palm Beach/Boca Raton area, Tallahassee and Gainesville.

Holiday travel tips

Arrive early to allow time for increased security.

Don't pack wrapped Christmas gifts either in your carryon bags or checked baggage.

Don't pack any items that could be deemed security threats, such as knives or scissors, in carryon bags.

Pack any electronic equipment that won't be used during flight in checked baggage.

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