CHICAGO — Airports big and small will be packed on Wednesday, just as they are every year on the day before Thanksgiving.
But the long lines and frayed nerves actually started last week, as many penny-pinching travelers booked earlier, and less expensive, flights.
As a result, what used to be a quick holiday trip home is now stretching to a week or more.
“I took my boys out of school for a couple days because it was so much cheaper,” said Peggy Edwards, who flew into New York last Friday from Atlanta with her two sons, and figured she saved at least $100 on each fare by flying earlier.
“That’s why we decided to make a week of it, to get our money’s worth,” she added.
Executives at several major airlines said they noticed the shift this year, with the crush starting several days earlier than usual.
And the airlines, because of the way they set airfares at peak times, gave deal-seeking travelers plenty of reasons to hunt for cheaper alternatives to flying right before the holiday.
Rick Seaney, the chief executive of FareCompare.com, a travel Web site, said passengers could have saved up to half off airfares this week by flying the Friday before Thanksgiving and returning the Monday after.
Mr. Seaney said the poor economy prompted many travelers to seek the lowest fares, even if it meant adjusting their travel dates.
“Everybody’s looking at every dime,” Mr. Seaney said. “They’re all worried about their jobs.”
Two years ago, before the recession, budget-conscious travelers were willing to spend up to $375 round trip to fly home. This year, Mr. Seaney said, many people balked at anything more than $240.
Many people are indeed staying home, or driving. Air travel is expected to fall 6.7 percent this holiday from last year, according to AAA, the travel group, which predicts 2.3 million people will fly this week.
The airport crowds late last week surprised many travelers.
“It was mobbed today,” said Linda Moxley, who decided to save money by flying with her family into New York last Friday from her home near Atlanta.
“Big surprise,” she added. “Very crowded.”
For the airlines, the new booking pattern they have had to prepare for is a marathon rather than a sprint. With so many people flying, disruptions can worsen the ripple effects. A snowstorm can snarl Midwest travel, or bad weather can cause traffic jams at New York’s airports, as it did Tuesday when low clouds caused a slowdown in air traffic.
“It’s just a question of when,” Donald R. Dillman, a vice president at United Airlines in charge of the company’s vast operations control center near O’Hare Airport here, said of flight cancellations. “But we can be ready.”
For United, holiday preparations began in October, when teams across the airline and at its five hub airports began daily briefings on the holiday schedule.
Since last week, those briefings have been more frequent — up to three a day — among executives, airport officials and staff at the operations center, a sprawling, darkened room where 250 flight controllers, schedulers, meteorologists and planners stare at multiple screens on each desk.
They track every United plane in the sky and every flight that is scheduled to take place during the day, feeding information to smaller command centers at each of United’s hubs.
United has little wiggle room in its operations, given how many routes it cut and planes it grounded to save money as the industry has struggled with high fuel costs.
Full planes make the task of managing the Thanksgiving holiday even harder. A cancellation could mean passengers could be stuck for hours, or even overnight (international travelers can even be held up for days).
This year, the airline has put three big planes on standby — a Boeing 747, a 767 and a 777 — that it can use on short notice, said Joseph C. Kolshak, United’s senior vice president for operations.
United is also introducing a new winter storm policy. If it can give them enough warning based on weather patterns, it will notify passengers 12 to 24 hours ahead of their flights, and offer to rebook them on later trips, letting them stay home rather than be stranded at airports.
Mr. Dillman said the bargain-hunting Thanksgiving travelers actually increased the airline’s chances of running a smoother operation.
“The earlier you go, the more choices you’ll have” in the event of a delay. He has his own advice for Thanksgiving 2010: “Avoid Sunday at all costs.”
The airline has added staff to the 8,700 people who work for United at its O’Hare operations, in every area, like customer service, baggage handling and even the outside companies that provide services like wheelchairs, fuel and catering.
During the holidays, when there can be as many as 112 flights an hour, infrequent travelers — who are unfamiliar with check-in kiosks, security procedures and airport layouts — can slow the routines.
“Our goal is to get them through the lobby as quickly as possible and to their aircraft as quickly as possible,” said Terry Brady, a United vice president who heads the airline’s operations at O’Hare.
Some travelers are hoping to devise new ways to beat the crowds. But given how crowded planes are this year, they seem to be lowering their expectations.
Shakema Wilson flew to New York last Friday from Atlanta with her daughter — “to beat the traffic and all the congestion going on with the airline industry,” she said.
She plans to fly back on the day after Thanksgiving.
“We’re coming back on ‘Black Friday,’ ” she said. “It’s going to be a rush, I think.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting from New York.