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Holiday travel: not so hellish after all?

NBC's Tom Costello has a holiday traffic report.

Stressed about facing the holiday crowds at the airport this week?

Turns out you may need less courage than you might think. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the idea that the holidays represent the busiest days in air travel may be more myth than reality.

With few exceptions, the Christmas travel season is off to a smooth start. According to the Associated Press:

  • A winter storm blanketed parts of New Mexico with more than a foot of snow on Friday, closing parts of some major highways and canceling flights; 
  • snowfall was forecast for Dallas and some cities in West Texas by early Saturday;
  • mountainous areas of New York state and New England were expected to get several inches of snow Friday;
  • severe thunderstorms were expected Friday in the southeast part of the country;
  • heavy snow forced the cancellation of more than 100 flights Thursday at Denver International Airport, but that tapered off by Thursday evening.

“The days around the holidays are still among the busiest periods,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade group formerly known as the Air Transport Association. “But on a random Friday in July you can often see travel numbers that top, say, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

Some people will get a white Christmas in Arizona and New Mexico, and Texas is in the path of the winter storm. The Weather Channel's Kelly Cass reports.

“Our busiest day was Sunday following Thanksgiving with about 89,000 passengers,” said Perry Cooper, spokesman for Sea-Tac International Airport. “That didn’t even come close to what we have daily during the summer.”

On Tuesday, A4A forecasted that 43.3 million travelers will fly on U.S. airlines during the Dec. 21–Jan. 4 period. That’s a 1 percent drop from last year which works out to about 20,000 fewer passengers per day.

That should translate into fewer people in the terminal although it may not always feel that way. “Airports may appear busier because of travelers who are unfamiliar with the kiosks or security or how the boarding process goes,” said Debby McElroy, executive vice president of policy and external affairs at Airports Council International, a trade group.

“It may seem like it’s taking longer when, in fact, there may not be more travelers at all,” she told msnbc.com.

To help facilitate traffic flow, airports are beefing up their staffs of volunteer ambassadors, keeping travelers advised through social media and rolling out programs to minimize hassles. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, 70 red-vested volunteers will be roaming the terminals offering assistance as part of the airport’s N.I.C.E. (Neutralize Irritations Customers Experience) program.

Across the country, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is offering free gift-wrapping post-security on Wednesday and Thursday in an effort to forestall situations where passengers slow down screening procedures by trying to bring pre-wrapped gifts through security.

Even TSA is expected to play a role in easing the airport experience as new procedures — including a new helpline for fliers with disabilities and medical conditions and recently announced regulations allowing children under 12 to keep their shoes on — should help cut security wait times, providing some relief to both parents and other travelers.

Transportation Security Administration workers showed off their holiday spirit at LAX Thursday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Of course, all the pre-planning in the world will be for naught if travelers are subject to a repeat of “Snowmageddon,” the holiday storm that slammed the East Coast last winter and led to the cancellation of thousands of flights. In that case, airports will once again fulfill their reputation as madhouses jammed with masses of angry, frustrated people.

“The struggle nowadays is that planes are so full that if you do run into a problem and have to cancel a flight, there’s nowhere to put those passengers,” said Cooper. “Trying to put those 200 people into [seats the airlines] don’t have can take days.”

But even there, suggests Lott, summer still trumps the holidays in terms of passenger inconvenience: “A bad thunderstorm in July is oftentimes more disruptive than a bad snowstorm because there’s usually little advance warning,” he said. “At least with a snowstorm, you can sometimes have several days of advance warning that a weather event is on its way.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.