Industry leaders are gearing up for a Thanksgiving that looks more like a long, busy week of travel than a mad dash to the airport on Wednesday and back again on Sunday, the result of flexible schedules that allow some to work from anywhere place. Since Thursday, more than 2 million people have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints a day, outnumbered by 2.4 million on Friday.
The figures surpassed last year’s numbers and rival 2019’s. Less than 1 percent of flights have been canceled and about a quarter have been delayed in the past few days, according to FlightAware data, numbers comparable to the travel period of the Thanksgiving 2019.
This week’s holiday represents a major testing ground for airlines’ pandemic-era recovery and their ability to get travelers to their destinations on time after a chaotic summer. It will also show how the pandemic has changed travel patterns, biting into business travel and opening the door to travel that combines work, leisure and visits with family.
Industry leaders are optimistic, saying increased hiring and fewer flights mean air carriers are staffed to avoid major delays and cancellations.
“We feel we’ve done an absolutely good job of making sure we’re staffed, making sure people are trained, and we’ve got extra people on board to be able to handle Thanksgiving travel,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for Thanksgiving. legislation and regulatory policy at the Airlines for America business group. “And as a result, we’re confident the week will go well.”
The stakes are high for the industry. A rocky summer that saw high cancellation rates has drawn the ire of passengers, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Federal officials announced fines last week against six airlines for late refunds, signaling they would watch the holidays go by.
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“We are delighted that demand is returning in a way no one thought possible, with more and more passengers having the income and desire to take to the air,” Buttigieg said during a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Monday. “But we also know that this means airlines must continue to take steps to address the service challenges of the tickets they sell.”
Executives expect the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest day for air travel during the period, when the TSA said more than 2.5 million people could pass through its gates. United Airlines expects the day to be its busiest since the start of the pandemic, with around 460,000 passengers. The carrier said it added 275 flights to its schedule on Sunday to meet demand.
Outside the airlines’ control, the weather could put a damper on travel. Forecasters said the weather Wednesday will be generally calm nationwide, although a powerful storm system is possible in the eastern United States from Friday onwards.
Analysts and airline officials say the general trend shaping the industry during the holidays and beyond is the ability for passengers to work remotely, ushering in a mix of business and leisure travel. Helane Becker, an analyst at financial firm Cowen, said this creates potential benefits for both airlines and their customers.
“It’s more manageable, frankly,” for airlines, Becker said. “It allows them to be less ‘over the top’. For customers, it allows them to get better prices.
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Rates remain high, spiked in the early summer months before easing this fall. Average domestic fares tracked by booking app Hopper are around $325, well up from $268 at the same point last year and slightly higher than 2019 prices.
During a recent earnings call, American Airlines chief commercial officer Vasu Raja said the carrier is seeing increased demand during what have traditionally been slower times around Thanksgiving, such as Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
“We’re really anticipating that Thanksgiving weekend, for example, will be peak, but even in the days after that, we’re going to have a level of demand,” Raja said.
While airline leaders project confidence in their ability to handle the days ahead, the pandemic and subsequent recovery has already caught airlines off-guard. Thanksgiving last year went smoothly, fueling confidence, only for the omicron variant and bad weather to create weeks of misery over Christmas and New Year’s.
Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said workers are nervous as the holiday season begins.
He said even with nearly 4,000 new flight attendants on the job, operations continue to be chaotic. The company has made changes, such as flying on a reduced schedule to better match operations with available personnel, but Montgomery said a crash in the fragile system could create turmoil.
“We are like dominoes,” he said. “One thing happens and we fall apart.”
Southwest became the first airline to surpass 2019 employment numbers last summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives said they have made reliability a priority and will be able to handle the busy travel season during the holidays.
“We’ve been very proactive in trying to make sure we match our resources to our full-year schedules,” said Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven during a recent earnings call. “I feel like we’re really ready to perform well during the holidays as we move into Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”
The pandemic has also changed the way travelers get to the airport, with fewer public transportation or ride-hailing services. The trend has meant that parking garages at some airports are full during peak periods. Airport leaders have urged travelers to book a seat in advance or, if available, catch a train for their flight.
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The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports, said travelers should expect heavy traffic and the possibility of full parking garages. Los Angeles International Airport officials have set up an automated Twitter account that provides parking capacity updates every 30 minutes.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske said on Monday that the agency is ready for a busy period of vacation travel. He said he expects the passenger count to be close to what it was before the pandemic.
“We will do everything we can to get people through security as quickly as possible,” he said.
There were signs at Reagan National Airport on Monday that travelers were eager to beat the ride.
Among those hoping for a smooth trip was Karla Vega, 19, a freshman at Catholic University. She said she was relieved to be leaving for Wisconsin on Monday rather than Wednesday.
“It will be really nice to be back with my family,” she said.
Even as passenger numbers increase and revenue recovers, the industry still faces challenges.
Several major airlines are in contentious contract talks with pilots. The prospect of a strike is remote, but analysts say the talks should end with double-digit pay increases, on a percentage basis. This would raise costs at a time when airlines are already paying more for fuel and supplies, but union leaders say a deal could provide stability.
Business and international travel, the airlines’ main sources of revenue, also remain in decline as domestic leisure travel rebounds. An analysis by Airlines for America showed passenger counts on Saturdays and Sundays were within 5% of 2019 levels, but trips on Tuesdays and Wednesdays were down more than 10%, an indicator of declining numbers. business trips. Analysts say continued inflation or a recession could also cool leisure travel.
Becker he said there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. A measure comparing the size of the economy to the number of tickets sold suggests there is still room for growth in the industry.
“I think that’s why airline executives are so optimistic,” Becker said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic than usual.”