Despite the economy, millions of Americans will be flying over the holidays, and unless winter storms interfere, something amazing happens at this time of year.

The vast majority of that multitude will get where they're going with limited hassles or delays, their bags intact and still toting Christmas gifts.

See, even we jaded industry observers occasionally step back and admire how airlines usually operate safely and efficiently, delivering the service they promise.

Many of those who read this column have flown on airlines multiple times and don't need a lot of advice about how to do it or what to expect over the next two weeks.

But infrequent travelers may welcome some help, as well as a report on airline cost trends.

All the airport security rules can be found on the Web sites of virtually every airline, as well as at the Transportation Security Administration's site (www.tsa.gov), and at brick-and-mortar travel agencies.

Here are the key reminders: Don't pack anything of value, such as jewelry, electronics, or prescription drugs in a checked bag; don't carry wrapped Christmas gifts in either carry-on or checked bags, and don't put liquids or gels in carry-on bags unless they're in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and in a quart-size zip-top bag.

That means that special jar of homemade cranberry sauce you want to share at Christmas dinner is likely to be seized at a checkpoint.

On air-travel costs, the economy began depressing demand last winter, pushing down traffic and fares in a trend that lasted through the summer.

By early fall, however, demand was increasing a little. The major carriers saw what they call a "revenue opportunity" and added surcharges for each flight segment of $10 and up for travel on the busiest days around holidays.

Many customers are paying more this holiday season than they did last year, but it's unclear whether the surcharges, and the state of the economy, were enough to deter many travelers.

The AAA travel club estimates that about 4.2 million people will travel by air from Wednesday through Jan. 3, a 2.9 percent increase over 2008.

For procrastinators, at least the major airlines are offering to sell reasonably priced tickets on most days in the next two weeks, by waiving advance-purchase requirements. Instead of a $1,500 last-minute fare, some plane rides could be as low as $300 if bought on the same day you travel.

Travelers will definitely pay more, compared with early 2008, for the use of services or amenities that once were included in the ticket price.

With few exceptions, you now pay for checked bags, checking bags at the airport rather than online, reserving the best seats on a plane, buying a ticket over the phone, and changing a reservation. The list of what costs extra now goes on and on.

Among the best sources of information on fees are on the www.FareCompare.com and www.SmarterTravel.com Web sites, using these links: http://rickseaney.com/domestic-airline-fee-chart-2/ and http://i.slimg.com/sc/sl/graphic/u/ul/ultimate-guide-to-airline-fees.pdf

Southwest Airlines is the only major carrier that doesn't charge for the first two checked bags, something it's been advertising heavily. That made me curious whether customers on airlines that charge fees were checking fewer bags these days, and in the process, losing fewer of them.

Airlines that charge the fees say fewer passengers are checking bags now. But the most recent report from the Department of Transportation, for this October vs. the same month last year, indicates there is no clear pattern about baggage service.

Among the major airlines, AirTran, JetBlue, Continental, US Airways, and Delta carried fewer passengers this year and had a lower number of mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers. American, United, Alaska, and Northwest had fewer passengers compared with October 2008 yet had more lost or misplaced bags.

Southwest was the only carrier with more passengers this October. Yet its mishandled-bag count went down fractionally, from 3.12 per 1,000 passengers to 3.08. Perhaps, as the employees in its commercials say, at Southwest, they really do love bags.

Keep the ban

Last week's column, reporting on efforts by providers of cell phones to keep Congress from outlawing voice calls on U.S. airlines and my opposition to the idea, provoked the most response of any topic ever covered in this space - and your vote was unanimous.

Almost 100 readers e-mailed me, posted comments on the Winging It blog, or left phone messages and said in essence: Do not change the regulations now in effect banning voice cell calls during flights.

Because of the volume, I was unable to respond to you individually. I will recap some of the comments from your messages next week. If anyone wishes to volunteer to be quoted by name in next week's column, please e-mail me your original message again, or write a new one, and include your hometown.

Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.