Henry Tuell arrived at Billings Logan International Airport two hours early Wednesday for his 1 p.m. flight to visit family in the Washington, D.C., area.
"I was expecting some traffic," the Joliet man said, putting aside the book he was reading. "There's not a line anywhere. There wasn't anybody at the counter. Four employees and not a single passenger."
Tuell, who works at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, has traveled at Thanksgiving before, but not usually so hassle-free. He got his tickets just two weeks before the flight and, amazingly enough, he was able to use frequent-flyer miles to get tickets that would take him out the day before Thanksgiving and get him back on Sunday, some of the busiest travel days of the year.
At about 11 a.m. the airport terminal was so quiet it was almost restful. No lines formed at the ticket counters and airline employees chatted in small groups. Security officials and skycaps looked bored. Only a few customers were seated in the restaurant and bar areas.
The airport bustled when early morning flights departed and again around the noon hour when another cluster of flights left, but things were quieter than usual, said Tom Binford, director of aviation and transportation for the city of Billings.
Nationwide, passenger numbers are off about 10 percent, he said, and the figures hold true for Billings. In October, passenger boardings were down about 9 percent.
The economy is "absolutely and entirely" the reason fewer people are flying this week, he said.
"I think you're going to see pretty much the same situation at Christmas," he said. "It's pretty much economically related."
Wednesday is usually the third-busiest day of the Thanksgiving holiday, Binford said. Busiest days are Sunday and Monday when travelers return home, he said.
At the baggage claim area Wednesday, Colleen and Jimmy McCave waited happily for an 11:12 a.m. flight bringing their son Michael and his family from Santa Clarita, Calif.
The family was planning to celebrate the holiday together in Billings where the McCaves' two daughters live.
"This is the first time we've had them all together since they left home, 20 or more years ago," said Jimmy McCave.
It will also be the first time his California granddaughters, Amber, 7, and Mikayla, 5, have been in Montana.
"We had to gather up some warm jackets for those kids," he said. "They insisted on snow boots, too, so we got snow boots, but it doesn't look like they are going to need them. See if you can arrange for snow. These little girls really want to see snow."
Snow isn't impossible in the Billings area, but it's more likely in the mountains, according to the National Weather Service forecast. The high on Thanksgiving day is expected to be just 38 degrees, but the sun is forecast to shine. Temperatures through Sunday are predicted to hit highs in the 40s. The McCave children can keep their fingers crossed starting Friday night when a slight chance of snow develops and continues until Sunday.
The best opportunity for catching accumulating snow might be in the Bighorn Mountains, although there is a chance Red Lodge could receive a light coat, according to the National Weather Service.
Weather conditions today will be pretty normal. The 30-year-average (based on the years 1971 to 2000) is for a daytime high of 40.5 degrees with about 0.03 inches of precipitation and 0.3 inches of snow.
Oddly, in this era of global warming, the long-term average - from 1934 to 2007 - is slightly higher. The 74-year average for high temperature is 41.2 degrees. The precipitation and snowfall averages are exactly the same as the 30-year figures.