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Air traffic controllers work to ease holiday rush

Joe Dotterer of the Air Traffic Control System Command Center said "it's going to slow down." Photo by Pete Marovich for The Washington Post

From inside the nation’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, nestled in the Virginia countryside amid horses wearing blue winter coats and a brewery for the swelling suburbs, the view of America is dotted with thousands of little animated airplanes inching across screens in all directions.

The task for scores of traffic-management, weather and safety specialists inside, particularly as this week's travel rush begins, is to maximize U.S. skies during times of overload.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving, that means pulling out a playbook they have been writing since the summer to temporarily reclaim airspace reserved for the military, offering that precious aerial real estate instead to airlines and their harried passengers. Their charge is to boost traveler totals without overwhelming high-traffic routes, like Interstate 95, or the controllers shepherding planes across the country.

"You can't have everybody go on I-95 from New York to Florida, even though everybody seems to want to do that at the same time," said Ginny Boyle, the Federal Aviation Administration's deputy director of operations for the nation's airspace. "Traffic management is kind of like a faucet. As there is a constraint in the system, I may just do a quarter turn on the spigot to not overflow the bucket."

The immutable reality of Thanksgiving is that transportation routes get jammed because so many people have the same dinner deadline. Thursday it is, and we are ready to overburden the system - and pay dearly for doing so, in lost time and ticket prices. This unoriginal insight will shadow your every move, however you try to get where you're going.

And given the humming economy, this year promises to be a dollop worse.

Forecasters project 54.3 million people will travel from Wednesday through Sunday, the highest total in more than a dozen years, according to AAA. Nearly 90 percent will go by car, 8 percent by plane and the rest by train, bus and boat.

An industry of unsatisfying warnings has sprung up, like this one from the Maryland Transportation Authority: "Travel during off-peak hours to avoid significant delays."

And what are those off-peak hours along, say, the I-95 corridor?

"Tuesday and Wednesday - before 6 a.m. and after 11 p.m.," the agency counsels.

"That's technically accurate. It's just not feasible, right?" said Mark Burfeind, director of global communications at the traffic data firm INRIX. "People have to go to grandma's house no matter what. Essentially, they don't have a way out."

So are we just cooked?

For those who can't pull off a six-day weekend or drive through the graveyard shift, Burfeind and his colleagues cite years of traffic data to offer an overarching strategy - and a bunch of specific places to avoid.

A computer monitor displays active airline traffic over the United States at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center on Friday in Warrenton, Virginia. Photo by Pete Marovich for The Washington Post

First, use common sense and avoid times when traffic is normally hairy in your community, basically during peak commute periods, they say. The holiday season "exponentially makes traffic worse during those times," Burfeind said. They say it is best to try to steer clear of usual choke points, given they're likely to be choked even tighter.

INRIX generated a list of the most unfortunate times and places to head out, around Washington and across the country.

In the Washington region, the worst time to take the inner loop of the Capital Beltway is between 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, when travel will take two and half times what it normally does. On I-95 northbound, the worst time to leave is Wednesday between 1 and 3 p.m. On Interstate 270 north and U.S. 50 eastbound, it's that day between 3 and 5 p.m.

In Houston, don't take Beltway 8 on Monday from 2 to 4 p.m., when one's "delay multiplier" will top out at 2.75, according to INRIX. In San Francisco, a driver can expect travel time to be four times as long as usual if they take Interstate 680 between 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesday.

INRIX also provided a view into the wretched junction of road and airport. A Wednesday afternoon drive to O'Hare International Airport from downtown Chicago, a trip of about 16 miles, will take about 1 hour and 37 minutes, they predicted.

At Washington's Reagan National Airport, a massive, multiyear construction effort dubbed "Project Journey" is jamming travel lanes and pickup zones, making the Thanksgiving surge even more difficult to digest.

"Construction has reduced lane capacity on the Arrivals (lower-level) roadway at Terminal B/C, which can create backups on other airport roads," said airport officials, who advise taking Metro, which is connected by walkways directly to the terminal. For family pickups, parking at the garages, which are outside the work zone, is a better bet for evading traffic snarls, they say. And they're free for the first hour.

At a higher altitude, the crew at the FAA's national command center is trying to wring the most from the nation's airspace. It's an intricate undertaking.

"We balance demand with system capacity," said Boyle, a precise and seemingly unflappable presence who has been at the FAA for nearly three decades. They've already made plans for the Christmas travel bump, and are looking ahead to Easter. Her father was a fighter pilot during World War II, and she was challenged by five brothers. "I'm scrappy. I can take someone down easy," she said.

But Boyle still marvels at the Traffic Situation Display screens that show the flow of flights across, into and out of the United States.

On a recent afternoon, there were 5,922 orange airplanes - representing jets, military planes, and propeller aircraft - scattered across a live map, like tiny fall leaves decorating the entire country.

It's a profound way to see America. "I always think that's breathtaking," Boyle said. "It's a big sky up there."

The traffic-management specialists and others working in the command center don't talk to the pilots themselves, but instead consider the bigger picture as they stitch together the work of the controllers responsible for individual swaths of the country and serve as the connective tissue between airline industry representatives, security officials and others.

The most persistent and disruptive unknown is generally Mother Nature, the origin of most delays.

When an airport gets clobbered by the weather, a worker sitting before six monitors in the command center near Warrenton, Va., taps into systems that delay scheduled flights to that city, a move necessary for safety, but which can also be the start of a snowballing series of holdups that can leave passengers stranded.

"I hate to jinx myself - knock on everything. The weather looks good for the whole northeast right now," Boyle said last week. The FAA is also tracking National Weather Service forecasts showing a storm headed for California just before Thanksgiving.

Jason Samenow, the weather editor for The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, said it's still early for a more definitive forecast, but "Wednesday, for the most part across the nation, looks remarkably quiet except for that storm system."

It's "almost a best case for travel across the Lower 48," he said, though "obviously stuff can change."

For now, the command center is coordinating with airlines that want to take temporary "Snowbird Routes" the FAA has set up from Boston to Florida. Airlines are adding flights to handle the travel surge, and many overwater routes off the East Coast are generally off-limits because of military airspace restrictions. But unlike with a highway, the sky can be opened up, at least a tad, to help release some pressure.

“There are choke points on I-95. Woodbridge. The mixing bowl. . . . With that many people, it’s going to slow down,” said Joe Dotterer, another air traffic control veteran and staff support manager at the command center. “We’re spreading out the volume of traffic, by having these offshore routes available to airlines. . . . That’s what the command center was created for.”

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