Thanksgiving air travel set for records in test for airlines

Travelers wait in line to check in for their flights at a Delta Airlines ticket counter at Orlando International Airport during the busy Christmas holiday season on December 28, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.

Paul Hennessy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Airlines expect record travel demand this Thanksgiving. Executives say they’re prepared for the hordes.

The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 30 million passengers from Nov. 17 through Nov. 28, the most ever. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is expected to be the busiest day during that period with an estimated 2.9 million passengers taking to the skies.

“We are ready for the anticipated volumes and are working closely with our airline and airport partners to make sure we are prepared for this busy holiday travel season,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a travel forecast earlier this week.

The year-end holidays are a crucial time for airlines to drum up revenue. Outside of peak holiday or other high-demand periods, carriers have turned to discounting fares or scaling back growth as consumers’ frenetic post-pandemic travel settles back to historical norms. Meanwhile, carriers are facing higher fuel and labor costs that have eaten into their profits.

But coveted travel days around the holidays can still command steep fares.

And Thanksgiving will be a test to see how the aviation industry handles the year-end holidays while still managing strains like a prolonged shortage of air traffic controllers.

The holiday period kicks off nearly a year after a winter storm triggered thousands of flight cancellations around Christmas. Carriers have spent months preparing to ensure that costly missteps don’t reoccur.

Weather readiness is particularly key for Southwest Airlines, which canceled 16,700 flights late last year and in early 2024 following severe winter weather, while other airlines recovered more quickly. The Dallas-based carrier has been spending on increasing aircraft de-icing capabilities and improving technology to better reschedule crews during flight disruptions.

“If your crew is on a three-day rotation and they don’t get out day 1, guess what, day 2, day 3 they’re not there,” Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson told reporters at the Skift Aviation Forum in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this month. “An airline always has to keep moving. An airline stops moving, and bad things happen.”

Prep isn’t limited to Southwest.

“We start winter readiness in the summer,” said United Airlines Chief Customer Officer Linda Jojo. “We have some of our first meetings when thermometers are at their highest.”

United has also been upgrading a series of self-service tools in its mobile app to help customers rebook themselves during flight disruptions, as well as real-time flight information. The carrier last month also launched a new boarding order in economy — window seat, middle, then aisle — that Jojo said will shave about two minutes off of enplaning.

Those extra two minutes “just helps that flight and the next flight and the next flight,” she said.

More flights, (some) better fares

The Federal Aviation Administration expects Thanksgiving flights to peak at 49,606 on the Wednesday before the holiday, up from the holiday peak last year of 48,192. (The busiest day of 2023 so far was June 29 with nearly 53,000 flights.)

Delta Air Lines said it alone expects to carry between 6.2 million and 6.4 million passengers from Nov. 17 to Nov. 28, compared with 5.7 million last year and 6.25 million in 2019.

United expects to fly 5.9 million passengers from Nov. 17 to Nov. 29, up 13% from last year and 5% more than 2019, and American Airlines expects to fly a record 7.8 million travelers from Nov. 16 to Nov. 28, up from 7 million last year and beating out 2019 by roughly 200,000 passengers.

Many fares ahead of Thanksgiving were lower than last year as airlines increased service in recent months, a relief for many consumers who have been facing higher interest rates and inflation.

Thanksgiving flight deals are averaging $248 for domestic round trips according to flight-tracking site Hopper, down from $271 last year and $276 in 2019, months before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Overall, airfare was down more than 13% in the latest U.S. inflation report, according to the Department of Labor.

Thanksgiving air travel set for records in test for airlines

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