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Originally published August 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 27, 2007 at 8:33 PM

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Get ready for Labor Day air-travel crush

Air travelers haven't seen the end of packed planes, flight delays and mishandled luggage just yet: Labor Day weekend looms. Starting Wednesday, nearly 16...

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Sea-Tac Airport: Get more travel tips at www.portseattle.org/seatac

Air travelers haven't seen the end of packed planes, flight delays and mishandled luggage just yet: Labor Day weekend looms.

Starting Wednesday, nearly 16 million passengers, up 2.6 percent from last year, are expected to jam airports amid the long holiday weekend, capping the worst season for air travel in recent memory.

"If summer so far is any indication, it's going to be a mess," said Kate Hanni, head of a consumer rights group and publisher of flyersrights.com. U.S. highways are expected to be no less jammed.

The Air Transport Association has estimated that 15.7 million passengers will travel globally on U.S. airlines between Aug. 29 and Sept. 5.

That crush of passengers comes as flight delays are at 12-year highs. The Department of Transportation earlier this month said the industry's on-time performance in the first half of 2007 was its worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995. Nearly a third of domestic flights on major U.S. airlines were late in June.

Sea-Tac Airport also is bracing for the crush, and is urging travelers to check their flight times at http://hosting.portseattle.org/fids/ before departing for the airport in case of substantial delays. It offers real-time information, the same as you'd see at the display boards in the airport.

Sea-Tac also asks that travelers get to the airport two hours early for domestic flights (be sure to allow extra time for parking/traffic as the airport will be busy). And travelers can beat the lines at airline check-in counters by checking in online and printing boarding passes at home (through their airlines' Web sites). Or there are automated kiosks in the airport garage, on the fourth floor, for checking in and printing boarding passes for five airlines — Alaska, Continental, Horizon, Northwest and United (see www.portseattle.org/seatac/traveler/theairlines.shtml">www.portseattle.org/seatac/traveler/theairlines.shtml)

Travelers can get packing tips — on what's allowed and not allowed in carry-on luggage — at www.tsa.gov, the Web site of the Transportation Security Administration. The restrictions on liquids in carry-on bags continue, and large electronic items (including laptops and some DVD players and video cameras) must be taken out of carry-on bags and screened separately.

Troubled skies ahead

Adding insult to injury, the end of summer vacations and the start of school doesn't mean air-travel troubles are over. A more extended crisis awaits travelers in the months ahead.

New airlines are adding planes, which may mean more flights and cheaper fares. With that comes more delays, more crowds, more frustration. Pilots are in short supply and air traffic controllers are retiring at a record pace, trends that could make matters worse. And the air-traffic control system is outdated.

The airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are pushing Congress to authorize financing of a multibillion-dollar upgrade of the air traffic control system. There is an ongoing dispute over what share the commercial airlines should pay and whether corporate jets and small plane operators should shoulder more of the cost.

The antiquated system uses 50-year-old analog radar technology. An updated system would use global-positioning satellites that could handle nearly three times current levels of traffic. It would also allow aircraft to fly closer together safely, experts say.

"While we cannot get in the way of Mother Nature, passengers can demand that Congress fairly fund the sorely needed modernization of our nation's airspace, which can help to mitigate future delays," said James May, the president of the Air Transport Association.

"Anyway you look at it, it's bad," said Lance Sherry, executive director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University. "If people don't get fed up with air travel and take other forms of transportation, then there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration blame weather for much of the delays but analysts say the storms only tipped a transportation system that was already teetering.

From June 1 to Aug. 15, one out of every seven flights, or nearly 200,000 in all, were delayed 45 minutes or more, according to Flightstats.com, an online flight tracking service. So-called "excessive delays" are up 36 percent from a year ago.

But so far low air fares are keeping many passengers from walking off the plane. Summer fares are down 2 percent overall compared to last year and in some markets, the fares were down as much as 30 percent, according to Farecast.com.

"It was painful to fly in terms of delays but in terms of the pocketbook it wasn't too bad," said Farecast.com spokesman Nick Leahy.

Kristin Jackson of the Seattle Times travel staff contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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