Thanksgiving travel: Airlines are trying to avoid meltdowns after summer’s chaos

Suspension

Airlines handled the first weekend with ease in what they say is a new extended Thanksgiving travel window, an early sign that their optimism heading into a critical holiday period is justified. But with the industry speeding into one of its busiest periods of the year, peak holiday travel days and the threat of severe weather await.

Industry leaders have been preparing for a Thanksgiving that feels more like a long, busy week of travel than a mad rush to the airport on Wednesday and again on Sunday — the result of flexible schedules that allow some to work from anywhere. Since Thursday, more than 2 million people have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints each day, and that number topped 2.4 million on Friday.

The numbers have surpassed last year’s and rivaled those of 2019. Less than 1 percent of flights have been canceled and about a quarter delayed in recent days, according to data from FlightAware, numbers comparable to the 2019 Thanksgiving travel period.

This weekend is a major test of pandemic-era airlines’ 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, reducing business travel while opening the door to trips that mix business, leisure and visits with family.

Industry leaders are optimistic, saying increased staffing and fewer flights mean air carriers have staff in place to avoid major delays and cancellations.

“We feel like we’ve definitely done a good job of making sure we’re staffed, making sure that people are trained and have more people on board so we can handle the Thanksgiving flights,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative affairs. and Regulatory Policy at Trade Group Airlines for America. “As a result, we are confident that the week will go well.”

The stakes are high for the industry. A rocky summer of high cancellation rates has infuriated commuters, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Federal officials announced fines last week against six airlines for delayed refunds, suggesting they will be watching how the holidays unfold.

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“We’re thrilled that demand has returned like no one thought possible, with more and more passengers getting income and wanting to take to the skies,” Buttigieg said Monday during a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “But we also know that this means that airlines must continue to take steps to address the challenges of servicing those tickets that 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 the busiest since the start of the pandemic, with about 460,000 passengers. The airline said it added 275 flights to its schedule on Sunday to meet demand.

Outside the airlines’ control, weather can get in the way of travel. Forecasters said the weather on Wednesday will be generally calm across the country, though a strong storm system is possible in the eastern United States from Friday forward.

Analysts and airline officials say a general trend shaping the industry during the holidays and beyond is the ability for passengers to work remotely, driving a mix of business and leisure travel. That creates potential benefits for both airlines and their customers, said Helan Baker, an analyst with financial firm Cowen.

“It’s easier, honestly,” Baker said. “It enables them to be less ‘climaxing.’ For customers, it enables them to get better prices.”

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Prices remain high, rising in the early summer months before easing this fall. The average local prices tracked by booking app Hopper are around $325 — well above $268 at the same point last year and slightly higher than 2019 prices.

During a recent earnings call, Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer for American Airlines, said the carrier is seeing increased demand during periods that were typically slower around Thanksgiving, such as Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.

“We do expect the Thanksgiving holiday, for example, to be at its peak, but even the days around it, we will have a level of demand,” Raja said.

While airline leaders show confidence In their ability to deal with the coming days, the pandemic and subsequent recovery caused airlines to be unguarded before. Last year’s Thanksgiving went smoothly, confidence boosted, only for the omicron variant and severe weather to create weeks of misery over Christmas and New Year’s.

Lynn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, said workers are anxious as the holiday season begins.

Even with nearly 4,000 new hosts in the works, she said, operations are still chaotic. The company has made adjustments, such as flying a reduced schedule to better match operations with available staff, but Montgomery said a single incident in the fragile system can lead to disruption.

“We are like dominoes,” she said. “One thing happens and we just fall apart.”

Southwest became the first airline to surpass its 2019 employment numbers last summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives said they’ve made reliability a priority and will manage the busy holiday travel season.

“We’ve been very aggressive in trying to make sure that we match our resources to our schedules throughout the year,” Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said during a recent earnings call. “I feel like we’re really ready to do well over the holidays as we go into the Thanksgiving and Christmas season.”

The pandemic has also changed how travelers get to the airport, with fewer people transiting or using passenger shuttle services. This trend means that garages at some airports are full at peak periods. Airport leaders urged travelers to book a spot ahead of time or, if available, take a train for their flight.

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The Washington D.C. Airports Authority, which operates Dulles International and Reagan National, said travelers should expect heavy traffic and the possibility of full garages. Officials at LAX have created an automated Twitter account that provides updates on parking capacity every 30 minutes.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Monday that the agency is preparing for a busy travel period. He said he expected passenger numbers to approach those recorded before the pandemic.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get people through security as quickly as we can,” he said.

On Monday, there were signs at Reagan National Airport that travelers are eager to weather the rush.

Among those hoping for a trouble-free trip was Carla Vega, 19, a student at Catholic University. She said she was relieved to leave on Monday for Wisconsin, rather than Wednesday.

“It would be really nice to be back with my family,” she said.

Even with passenger numbers picking up and revenue picking up again, the industry still faces challenges.

Many major airlines conduct contentious contract negotiations with pilots. The possibility of a strike is remote, but analysts say the talks are expected to end in double-digit pay increases, on a percentage basis. It will add costs at a time when airlines are already paying more for fuel and supplies, but union leaders say the deal could provide stability.

Business and international travel, two of the airlines’ main sources of revenue, also remained depressed as domestic leisure travel picked up. An analysis by American Airlines showed that Saturday and Sunday passenger numbers were within 5 percent of 2019 levels, but travel on Tuesday and Wednesday was down more than 10 percent — an indication of the decline in business travel. Analysts say persistent inflation or recession may dampen leisure travel.

Baker He said there are plenty of reasons for optimism. One metric that compares the size of the economy to the number of tickets sold suggests that there is still room for the industry to grow.

“I think that’s why airline managements are so optimistic,” Baker said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic than I usually am.”

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