The big joker of holiday travel

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(CNN) — The flight chaos over the summer has air travelers on edge as Americans head into what is expected to be the busiest holiday travel season since 2019.

By all accounts from airlines, industry groups and aviation analysts, US air carriers are in a much better position than this summer to avoid operational meltdowns over the holidays.

“They’ve changed their schedules, they’ve focused on hiring, putting people in the right jobs that we hope are at the right time,” said Nick Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, an industry group that represents U.S. airlines.

The number of Americans expected to travel by air on Thanksgiving is up 8 percent from last year, according to forecasts from AAA, and air traveler volume is expected to be about 99 percent of 2019 volume.

United Airlines said it was on track to hire 15,000 employees in 2022, and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told CNN that the company has hired 25,000 people since early last year and is still hiring.

Airlines have now surpassed 2019 staffing levels, according to Airlines for America, and U.S. carriers have adjusted their staffing models to account for factors like rising absenteeism. U.S. airlines have also increased the staffing reserves they have on hand, the group said, and also signaled a less concentrated time to vacation travel as Americans who can work remotely have more flexibility.

“I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods yet,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Monday. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that this week has started well.”

Travelers wait at a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Nov. 24, 2021. Vacation air travel has expired this year.

Lindsey Wasson//Reuters

But there is still a big wild card, which far precedes the problems exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a force that has a way, even when predictions are true, of shattering the best laid plans.

“I always worry about the weather because it’s the number one thing that can mess up a flight or a flight pattern,” Calio told CNN’s Pete Muntean.

Bastian recently told NBC’s “Today” show that Delta has enough pilots, planes and customer service for the holiday season, and plans are in place to deal with the severe weather.

Kathleen Bangs, a spokeswoman for flight-tracking site FlightAware, said airline operations this past Thanksgiving were pretty smooth. Overall U.S. cancellations were just 0.4% and delays were just under 15% for the holiday week, Sunday-to-Sunday.

He attributed that performance largely to “exceptional weather in most of the United States”. And the holiday was before the Omicron variant brought a sharp increase in airline staff absences over the Christmas period.

For now, it looks like travel to most Thanksgiving destinations could be pretty smooth, weather-wise. Return trips could be a little trickier, according to CNN’s Weather team.

Less places

While weather is the biggest variable, “there are simply fewer seats in flights than in 2019, meaning more full flights and fewer empty seats to re-seat customers from delayed and canceled flights,” the analyst said. Bob Mann, of RW Mann & Company.

Staffing has certainly improved since the summer, he noted, but how airlines implement their contingency plans will be key to their success.

Some major US airlines are not yet flying at their pre-pandemic capacity.

Delta’s network capacity has decreased by approximately 15% from pre-pandemic levels.

Through Thanksgiving, United Airlines expects to operate an average of more than 3,700 flights per day, about 90 percent of 2019 volume. Yet the airline expects roughly the same number of travelers as it did in 2019.

And the situation is not unique to United.

“That means — flying the same or nearly the same amount of people… — but with fewer flights — airlines are using their bigger rig, relying more on mainline jets than regionals and filling every last seat,” Bangs explained via email.

A traveler crosses the skywalk at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport on November 21, 2022.

A traveler crosses the skywalk at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport on November 21, 2022.

Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

United added 275 extra flights on Sunday 27 November to meet demand. The carrier expects Sunday to be its busiest travel day since before the pandemic.

John Grant, lead data analyst for the OAG aviation database, said overall US domestic capacity during the week of Thanksgiving will be at about 95% of its 2019 level.

Expect load factors close to 100% on nearly all flights during the holiday period.

“And if you end up with an empty seat next to you, you’ve won the lottery,” Grant said.

Airlines and agencies like the Transportation Security Administration “are as careful as they can to prevent any unforeseen natural events like the weather,” Grant said.

“If it doesn’t snow, I think you’ll be fine.”

Tips to make air travel smoother during the holidays

Make sure you are aware of the weather.

If you know where the big fronts are and where winter storms are forecast, “that gives you a chance to change your route before you commit to going,” said FlightAware’s Bangs.

Be aware of flight changes and travel advisories.

Your airline’s app and apps like FlightAware will keep you posted on changes. Check your airline’s website for travel advisories or notices that may allow free changes in bad weather.

Be aware of what your airline will do in the event of long delays or cancellations.

Bring your hand luggage.

“Try taking that carry-on and not checking a bag. It’s only four days,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA.

Have a contingency plan for carry-on bags.

Busy flights can mean that your carry-on, plus heavy coats and gifts, will quickly fill the overhead bins. And passengers may need to check their wheeled suitcases at the gate.

This means being ready to quickly exchange what you really need – valuables, medications, etc. – from your suitcase to a smaller bag that fits under your seat.

“The airline can’t take it away from you under your seat bag, but they can prevent wheelie bags and duffel bags, etc. from boarding once they see the bins filling up,” Bangs said.

Catch early morning flights“They tend to come out on time,” Twidale said.

Reserve parking in advance.

“Don’t assume there will be parking available” in airport or off-site parking lots, Twidale said.

Tips for drivers

The vast majority of Americans — nearly 49 million of the 54.6 million who travel for the holidays — are driving to their destinations for Thanksgiving, and AAA has advice for them, too:

Avoid the freeways on Wednesday afternoon.

The window between 11am and 8pm should be the busiest.

Hit the road early on Thanksgiving.

Thursday, the morning hours before 11 am will be less congested.

Avoid this later time period on weekends.

AAA recommends avoiding the hours between 4:00pm and 8:00pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pete Muntean of CNN contributed to this report.

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