The first wave of holiday travelers packed highways and jammed airport terminals Tuesday as one of the busiest travel periods of the year began with labor disputes threatening to snarl air travel.
United and Northwest airlines again blamed their mechanics for flight delays Monday and Tuesday. The workers are seeking new labor contracts, but no strike is anticipated before next year at the earliest.
Delta Air Lines also expects slowdowns and cancellations through Thanksgiving week because pilots seeking a new contract have stopped requesting voluntary overtime.
Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, said the airlines should have reduced their schedules or added temporary help to avoid inconveniencing passengers.
''But that hasn't been the practice at many airlines,'' he said. ''They attempt to hide the problem or blame the unions.''
Not that everyone is traveling by air: The American Automobile Association predicted that a record 39 million Americans would travel more than 100 miles from home this week, with four out of five going by car. The average price of gasoline across the nation is $1.57 per gallon - about a quarter more than a year ago.
Amtrak officials said they expected 580,000 riders this week, up from 420,000 during an average week. With a record 115,000 people expected to travel Wednesday, the railroad prepared by adding 65,000 seats nationwide and 45 trains in the Northeast corridor alone.
Bus companies called up extra drivers. Greyhound Lines Inc. expected nearly 1 million passengers between Wednesday and Monday.
''We're going to have all hands on deck,'' spokeswoman Kristin Parsley said. ''Even corporate employees have to be willing to help out with ticketing and bags.''
But most eyes were on the airports.
At Chicago's O'Hare International, lines at the security gates and baggage-check counters moved steadily, but there were long lines at the fast-food stands and empty seats were hard to find in the terminal.
Mary Tolin of Hammond, Ind., was sitting on the floor, waiting out a 2-hour delay in her United Airlines flight to Los Angeles, where she planned to visit her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
Tolin, a member of United's frequent-flyer club, was most upset that the airline had said the flight would be on time.
''I don't mind being delayed if they're truthful,'' she said. ''Don't lie - tell the truth. Now I'm angry. That's the game they play.''
While Tolin was tired of waiting, Kwala Whitaker and Chemeitra Waller were tired of walking around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The women had flown in from Oklahoma City and were looking for a friend - all three were headed to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the holidays.
''We're looking for our terminal now,'' Whitaker said. ''I'm so tired and worn out from airports.''
United spokesman Matt Triaca said the airline had canceled 43 flights systemwide by Tuesday afternoon, about average. There were far more on Monday. Northwest had canceled 48 flights, reported 150 delays and said 31 planes remained out of service - all due to maintenance issues and all far above normal.
Terry Trippler, an airline expert with OneTravel.com, expressed frustration with the labor problems at Northwest and United.
''This is really getting out of hand,'' Trippler said. ''These airlines, both labor and management, better get it together or Congress will have to step in. They are affecting the lives of millions of people.''
Mechanics at both airlines have been ordered by courts not to conduct illegal work slowdowns and have denied doing so.
''Maintenance-related means a lot of things,'' said O.V. Delle-Femine, national director for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.
John Brentlinger, who took a bus from his North Carolina home to Dallas to visit friends this week, boarded another bus to Cleveland on Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving with relatives.
''I prefer going by bus because it's more scenic,'' he said. ''And that's a whole lot of driving.''
On the Net: