More travelers, more weather expected

SkyWest passengers arrive Monday at the Santa Maria Public Airport from Los Angeles. More than 42.5 million Americans are expected to travel during this Thanksgiving week.

Thanksgiving holiday travelers might want to add a few items to their checklist this year: an umbrella, a raincoat and, if they’re driving, maybe some new windshield wipers.

The National Weather Service is calling for a Pacific storm to blow through the Central Coast on Thanksgiving Day, which could be enough to dampen holiday travelers but not their travel plans.  “We’re expecting this upcoming holiday system to move through the area Wednesday night and Thursday, with a pretty good threat of rain,” said weather service meteorologist David Sweet. “So keep your turkey indoors.”

With more than 42.5 million Americans expected to travel this week — 90 percent of whom will hit the roadways — and rain in the forecast, both transportation and law enforcement officials are asking them to be prepared and be safe.

Holiday travel is expected to rise about 4 percent over 2010, according to the Automobile Association of America, when just over 40 million Americans traveled on Thanksgiving.  Statewide, 5.3 million people are expected to travel this weekend — mirroring the national increase of 4.1 percent over last year. More than 4.5 million of them will drive, while 621,000 are expected to fly.

Southern California AAA says 3.3 million of those travelers will be in the Southland and 86 percent, 2.8 million, will be on local freeways, highways and roads.

A small percentage of those cars will be black and white, with the California Highway Patrol beginning its Maximum Enforcement Period on Wednesday at 6:01 p.m.  “For us, if you’re not on vacation, you’re going to be working,” CHP Sgt. John Ploetz said of his fellow officers. “We’re hoping to have some overtime units going out, particularly in the evening hours. We usually put extra officers out — normally in the afternoons and evenings.”  Ploetz said Highway 166 will be a focus of the CHP’s Santa Maria office because of the heavy traffic from the San Joaquin Valley to the coast for the long holiday weekend.

While most of the increased travel will take place on four wheels, air travel — which accounts for approximately 8 percent of holiday travel — is expected to increase around 1.8 percent over 2010 with 3.4 million people flying to their Thanksgiving destinations.

Overall, air travel is up 2 percent in 2011 through July, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Both Allegiant Air and SkyWest/United Express are adding flights to their Santa Maria schedules.

Allegiant, which provides flights to and from Las Vegas, has added two additional flights, one each on the Monday before and after the holiday — Nov. 21 and 28.

SkyWest, which was offering three flights per day on its Tuesday and Thursday schedule from Santa Maria to Los Angeles, will add an extra flight each day through the end of December.

Santa Maria Public Airport General Manager Chris Hastert said air travelers shouldn’t have any logistical delays related to the airport, but offered a holiday traveling tip.  “If they’re bringing presents to loved ones, they should leave them unwrapped because if they don’t they’ll have to unwrap them to go through screening,” Hastert said of the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. “We have adequate parking, but with the increased flight loads travelers are advised to get here early.”

Even though there will be more travelers on the roads this week, weather shouldn’t create too much of a problem. The weather service is predicting less than a half inch of rain from the storm in the coastal valleys, with light winds.

The rain will probably cause more problems for the construction crews working to extend the main runway at the Santa Maria airport than it will for travelers. The project required the airport to remove some of its navigational aids, which limit bad weather landings, but Hastert said the storm shouldn’t cause a problem.  “The only thing that would cause any issues is if we get fog again. We’ve only had two cancellations — one was last week,” Hastert said. “When we have weather like last weekend, when we have rain, that’s usually not a factor because the clouds are up a little higher.”

Slick roads could compound problems caused by heavy traffic volumes.

Last year, 21 people were killed in California in Thanksgiving holiday collisions, according to the CHP which made 1,546 arrests for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a 6-percent increase over the previous year.  “Hopefully it will be a quiet one,” Ploetz said. “Our main goal is to keep everybody within reasonable speeds, keep them off the cell phones, and if they’re drinking this weekend, to designate a driver.”

After the storm blows through Thursday, the weather service is calling for sunny and warm conditions to return for the rest of the weekend, with daytime highs in the upper-60s and low 70s and overnight lows in the mid-40s.

By Brian Bullock / Staff Writer / Santa Maria Times | Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011

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