The Return of Turkey Travel

Edward Russell

November 28th, 2022

Thanksgiving travel is back, well nearly. U.S. airlines anticipated 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, as of November 23, 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 fell 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,” A4A President and CEO Nicholas Calio said of Thanksgiving travel on the Airline Weekly Lounge podcast. “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, echoed 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, the 13 days spanning Thanksgiving. That is down nearly 6 percent from the 30.2 million who flew over the 13 days around the holiday in 2019. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, 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.

Edward Russell

In Other News

  • Things are hopping for Qantas. Australia’s largest airline told investors that demand remains strong, leading to profits this half that will be greater than previously expected. The company’s debt is declining. And its operations are improving. The airline is still about 30 percent smaller internationally than it was pre-crisis but domestic capacity is up, in tandem with a boom in domestic leisure travel. “Consumers,” Qantas said in a statement, “continue to put a high priority on travel ahead of other spending categories.”
  • There’s a new wrinkle in the privatization of Italy’s ITA Airways. Shipping giant MSC, which had partnered with the Lufthansa Group on its bid, has dropped out of the running leaving the German airline — for now — alone in its pursuit of the Italian carrier. Air France-KLM and Delta Air Lines, as part of a consortium led by Certares, were selected as preferred bidders for ITA in August, but that status ended when no deal was reached by the end of October. Lufthansa is still interested in ITA but it is unclear where its bid stands without MSC’s capital.
  • Avianca CEO Adrian Neuhauser took his case for the airline’s proposed merger with Viva Air to the public last week. “It is essential that Viva exists,” he wrote in a column in Colombian daily El Tiempo. He argued that Avianca is well positioned to ensure that Viva, which he credits for bringing low fares to the Colombian market, continues as a going entity. Neuhauser added that Avianca is “more than willing” to address the competitive concerns raised by Colombian regulators, including reviewing the airlines’ slot portfolios at airports, and committing to maintaining the Viva brand and business model. The Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics Authority blocked the merger on November 8 but said it would review the deal again if competition issues were addressed.
  • Regional Air Wisconsin posted a $12.5 million operating profit on $68.4 million in revenues during the third quarter. However, due to flying reductions related to pilot and mechanic staffing, the airline’s revenues decreased nearly 5 percent year-over-year. Air Wisconsin is also in a pay dispute with affiliate United Airlines over some $33 million that the regional claims the network carrier owes it; this dispute was moved to arbitration in October. Air Wisconsin’s partnership with United will end in February followed by a yet-to-be-determined wind-down period, and the regional will begin a new pact with American Airlines in March.

Jay Shabat & Edward Russell

Edward Russell

November 28th, 2022