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 are expecting record travel demand this Thanksgiving. Executives say they are prepared for the hurdles.
The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 30 million passengers between November 17 and 28, the highest number 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 expected volumes and are working closely with our airlines and airport partners to ensure we are prepared for this busy holiday season,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a travel forecast earlier this week.
The year-end holidays are a crucial time for airlines to boost revenue. Outside of peak holidays or other high-demand periods, airlines have moved to cut fares or scale back growth as frenetic consumer travel returns to historic norms after the pandemic. Meanwhile, carriers are facing higher fuel and labor costs, which are eroding their profits.
But high rates can still apply for coveted travel days around the holidays.
And Thanksgiving will be a test to see how the airline industry handles the year-end holidays while dealing with stresses like a prolonged shortage of air traffic controllers.
The holiday season begins almost a year after a winter storm caused thousands of flight cancellations around Christmas. Carriers have been preparing for months to ensure costly missteps don’t happen again.
Preparing for the weather is especially critical Southwest Airlines, which canceled 16,700 flights late last year and early 2024 after severe winter weather, while other airlines recovered more quickly. The Dallas-based airline has invested in 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 come out on 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.”
Preparation is not limited to Southwest.
“We’ll start winter readiness in the summer,” he said United Airlines Chief Customer Officer Linda Jojo. “We have some of our first meetings when the thermometers are at their highest.”
United has also upgraded a suite 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 also launched a new economy boarding order (window seat, middle, then aisle) last month that Jojo said will shave about two minutes off scheduling time.
Those extra two minutes “just help 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, compared to last year’s holiday peak of 48,192. (The busiest day of 2023 so far was June 29 with almost 53,000 flights.)
Delta Airlines said alone that it expects to carry between 6.2 million and 6.4 million passengers between November 17 and 28, compared to 5.7 million last year and 6.25 million in 2019.
United expects to carry 5.9 million passengers from November 17 to November 29, up 13% from last year and 5% more than in 2019, and US airlines expects to fly a record 7.8 million travelers from November 16 to 28, up from 7 million last year and better than 2019’s approximately 200,000 passengers.
Many fares leading up to Thanksgiving were lower than last year as airlines expanded service in recent months, a relief for many consumers who have been dealing with higher interest rates and inflation.
According to flight tracking site Hopper, Thanksgiving flight deals average $248 for round-trip domestic flights, compared to $271 last year and $276 in 2019, months before the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Airfares are down more than 13% in the latest U.S. inflation report, according to the Department of Labor.