Economy keeps more Americans home for Thanksgiving



By Don Babwin

CHICAGO – Scott Fuchs will spend Thanksgiving with his family in Florida like he’s done for 20 years or so. But like thousands of other Americans, his brother is staying home – travel isn’t possible after he was laid off from his job in Maryland.

“Lack of funds,” said Fuchs, a 49-year-old computer programmer from Plano, Texas.

A troubled economy is casting a shadow over the country on this Thanksgiving weekend, and thousands are opting to stay home instead of embark on costly voyages to see loved ones. Airport terminals were eerily empty Wednesday, devoid of the typical chaos on the day before a holiday. It was the same on the roads, where traffic breezed along even though plummeting gas prices made it much cheaper to drive.

Nationally, the Automobile Association of America says 41 million Americans were expected to travel more than 50 miles for the holiday, down about 1.5 percent or 600,000 people from last Thanksgiving. Of those, about 4.5 million are expected to fly, down about 7 percent from last year, while around 33.2 million will drive, a decrease of about 1 percent.

It is the first decrease in holiday travel nationally since 2002, and the largest since the Thanksgiving that followed the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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“This is a reflection of the economy, and while gas prices have come down so significantly, people are paying more for everything else,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago.

While most trips were going smoothly, security was a concern in New York City after federal authorities warned law enforcement of a possible terror plot by al-Qaida against the city’s subway and train systems during the holiday season, according to an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press. However, no changes were made to the nation’s threat level.

There were no substantial delays at airports, and travelers were surprised to find themselves moving more quickly than on a typical weekend. “It’s so quiet,” Jen Lawless said in a hushed voice as she arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with her husband for a trip to North Carolina.

It was the same in Atlanta, where security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, moved briskly at under 10 minutes.

At Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, travelers found parking spots in the front row of the lot and no wait for check-in and security.

“This is crazy. There’s no one here,” said Ryan Sullivan, who was flying to New York with his wife and two kids. “It’s quieter than on most weekdays.”

In Boston, Alicia Kelly, on her way with her family to Miami, said she’d never seen so few people at Logan International Airport on the day before Thanksgiving. And officials at Denver’s International Airport said about 20,000 fewer travelers were expected on Wednesday than the same day last year.

One reason for the quiet scenes could be found in the Thanksgiving plans of people like Steve and Debbie Boultinghouse. Rather than host Thanksgiving for their daughter, her husband and three children, as they normally do, the Dallas couple decided this year to save her daughter’s family money and visit their home in Tampa.

“There’s five of them and two of us,” Debbie Boultinghouse said.

At an airport in Columbus, Ohio, the economic troubles affected travelers in another way: Fewer planes. Last year, there were 193 daily departures at the airport in November; this year, there are only 155 each day.

“With today’s economy and the state of the aviation industry, there are about 20 percent fewer flights this Thanksgiving compared to last Thanksgiving,” said airport spokeswoman Angie Tabor.

Even those families determined to have Thanksgiving dinner with loved ones talked about making their own concessions to the bleak economy.

Allison Stewart-Smull of suburban New Orleans said she, her husband and their 3-year-old son still flew to Chicago for Thanksgiving with family in Rock Island, Ill., but they took an early flight on Wednesday and planned to return Saturday instead of Sunday to save money.

Then there were people like Dave Scott.

“We’re cutting back on everything else so we can do what we want to do,” said Scott, a 55-year-old Wayne State University police officer who had stopped at a rest stop north of Detroit on his way to his family’s cottage in Grayling, Mich. “We don’t go to movies. We don’t go out to dinner.”

Travelers also signaled that although they were hitting the road, they would not be pulling as much money out of their wallets this holiday season.

“Maybe you cut back on the gifts a little bit, or maybe you don’t have as extravagant Thanksgiving as you used to,” said Donita Hill, of Estero, Fla., who flew to Boston with her husband, Bob, and was waiting at Boston’s South Station Wednesday morning to take a train to Worcester, Mass., to spend Thanksgiving with their son. “Maybe you don’t have a free-range bird as you’ve had in the past; maybe you go to a Butterball.”

Still, some said the holidays were the one time not to cut back.

“Thanksgiving is the one holiday I go to see my family,” said San Francisco resident Sharon McKeller, who was at the airport in Miami. “We are traveling less but I never not do Thanksgiving.”

While many people said they would have traveled no matter what, others like Dale England of Atlanta said gas prices falling from above $4 a gallon to below $2 allowed him to take a trip to Ohio with his two teenage daughters.

“I probably would have held off coming up for Thanksgiving and waited for Christmas,” said the 44-year-old England as he stopped for coffee along Interstate 75, north of Cincinnati.

Jack and Annette Curtis said it was particularly important this year to drive from their home in Newport, Tenn. to Atlanta. The two are involved with ministry work and plan to feed the homeless Wednesday before returning to Tennessee to do the same on Thanksgiving.

“There are a lot of people hurting,” said Jack Curtis. “A lot of companies are going out of business.”