Thanksgiving travel is back, well nearly. U.S. airlines anticipate flyer numbers just shy of 2019 levels making this turkey day the busiest holiday for travel since the pandemic.
Security screening numbers at U.S. airports have been slightly above, or a point or two below, where they were three years ago since November 18, the Friday before Thanksgiving, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Screenings were up 0.5 percent to 2.3 million people on November 21, the Monday before, but down 6 percent on Tuesday, November 22, a fact that many attribute to the still lagging recovery of corporate travel. Thanksgiving falls on Thursday, November 24, this year.
The increases in security screenings the weekend before the holiday reflects what many see as a broader change in travel habits. That is, the increase in blended work and leisure trips has spread out the Thanksgiving period to more of a week of travel instead of a peak the Wednesday before and Sunday after.
“It is looking more like a week of travel,” Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas Calio said of Thanksgiving travel on the Airline Weekly Lounge podcast on November 18. “We are seeing it extending out over a longer period of time than the traditional Wednesday to Sunday.”
A4A’s member airlines, including American, Delta, Southwest, and United, echo Calio’s view that holiday travel is now more spread out.
“One of the things that we’re seeing though, is that demand is more spread out,” American CEO Robert Isom said on Thanksgiving travel at the Skift Aviation Forum on November 16. And that change is good because it means American, and other airlines, can publish a schedule that does not have the same amount of peaks and valleys over the holiday as in years past — something that Isom added the industry may not be able to do today given its labor and other constraints.
Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker estimates that 28.4 million people will fly from November 17-29, or the 13 days spanning Thanksgiving. The Sunday after the holiday, November 27, is still forecast to be the busiest day of the period as people who may have spent a week away all fly back at once, she wrote in a report. Becker expects 2.5 million people to fly that day.
“The ability to work from anywhere is enabling people to travel on days when air fares might be lower than they are for the two or three peak days around the holiday,” she wrote.
Delta forecasts carrying roughly 6 million travelers, and United about 5.5 million flyers over the holiday period. The former said its estimate is down nearly 5 percent from what it saw in 2019, while the latter expects numbers on par with three years ago.
And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, expects airport traffic to fully recovered from the pandemic this Thanksgiving. The operator estimates that 2.2 million people will pass through its airports — the same number as in 2019 — over the six days from November 23-28.
But while passenger numbers are at or near 2019 levels, capacity is not. U.S. domestic capacity is down 2 percent, and seats 3.5 percent, in November compared to three years ago, according to Diio by Cirium schedules. That is partially driving the double-digit increase in yields airlines are seeing, and the high airfares travelers are paying.
On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, U.S. airlines were operating near normal with just 30 flight cancellations in the U.S. as of 10 a.m. eastern standard time, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. A lack of severe weather around the country helped ease the trips of those travelers who did choose to fly on the day before the holiday. Miami and Philadelphia both had departure delays at the time.
But even with minimal delays, and Thanksgiving travel spread out over a longer period, everyone still expects full planes and busy airports. In other words: The normal pains of holiday travel.
“This is the first time in two or three years we’re going to have a really normal Thanksgiving,” Calio said.