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Thanksgiving holiday travel surge brings higher fares and fewer flights

Nov. 18, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 18, 2022 at 7:23 p.m.

Travelers wait to check in at Los Angeles International Airport in California this past July.  (Bing Guan/Bloomberg )
Travelers wait to check in at Los Angeles International Airport in California this past July. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg )
By Mary Schlangenstein </p><p>and Alan Levin Bloomberg Bloomberg

When Claudia Estudillo learned she had to be in Cancun on business close to Thanksgiving, she decided to bring her husband and daughter with her over the holiday.

She wasn’t, however, prepared for a cost of almost $300 more per person than she expected to pay.

They’re making the trip anyway, joining the throngs at airports.

“It’s very expensive now,” said the 55-year-old Dallas real estate agent, whose trip comes with an inconvenient, late-night connection in Mexico City. “If I didn’t need to go, I wouldn’t.”

Planes and airports are expected to be bustling this Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the most traveled holidays of the year.

The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen more than 2.5 million passengers the Sunday after Thanksgiving as travelers flock home.

That’s slightly above screenings at airport checkpoints the same day last year but still below a record 2.9 million in 2019.

AAA is forecasting more than 4.5 million people will travel by air during the Nov. 23 to Nov. 27 period, a 7.9% increase from 2021 and just 1.4% fewer than in 2019.

Airlines are vowing to meet the demand with minimal inconveniences, barring an Alberta clipper barreling through the upper Midwest or a Nor’easter shutting down a swath of the Atlantic coast.

They’ve staffed up and say they’ve learned lessons from last year’s meltdowns when overloaded systems caused a surge in cancellations and delays.

“We’re ready,” American Airlines Chief Executive Officer Robert Isom said at an industry conference Wednesday. “I expect every day to be pretty full – and manageable.”

The recovery comes despite air fares being pushed higher by increased jet fuel costs and greater demand.

Domestic round-trip prices for the holiday are averaging $275, up 10% from 2021 and in line with 2019, according to travel search engine Hopper Inc.

Average round-trip international fares are $828, up 16% from last year and 24% over 2019.

Travelers say they’re still prioritizing travel over other consumer spending.

“We haven’t seen any signs of demand declining in our search or booking data,” said Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper.

Delta Air Lines’ planes are flying 90% full every day, something Chief Executive Ed Bastian says he expects to continue “for some time” – even with fares at a premium.

There are signs ticket price inflation is causing some consumers to delay buying airline tickets or to switch to other forms of travel, according to data from Adobe Analytics.

Through the end of October, domestic bookings for trips between Nov. 19 and Nov. 24 were down 7% from the same point in 2019, while the amount spent is up 3%.

Historically about 69% of Thanksgiving trips were booked by the end of October.

“At the moment, it is too soon to say what the exact balance will be between people waiting for prices to drop, versus those who forgo air travel altogether,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst with Adobe Digital Insights, a unit of software maker Adobe Inc.

“The surge in demand this year tells us that many consumers still intend to travel by air, but are waiting to pull the trigger depending on pricing trends.”

U.S. carriers will operate 13% fewer domestic flights over the holiday than in pre-pandemic 2019, but just 2% fewer available seats as larger planes have replaced smaller ones on some routes, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company.

The Federal Aviation Administration has added about 10% more air-traffic controllers to a Florida facility that was understaffed in an attempt to limit flight disruptions.

The agency in a Nov. 3 letter to carriers asked that they consider more over-ocean routes to avoid congested flight paths between the Northeast and Florida.

“It’s all hands on deck,” FAA acting Administrator Billy Nolen told reporters Thursday in Washington. “We feel very good about where we are.”

Delta expects to fly close to 6 million customers over the holiday, while United Airlines Holdings Inc. expects more than 5.5 million, close to the 2019 number.

But reliability also improved since airlines added thousands of employees and slowed growth after staffing shortages and storms led to widespread flight disruptions and cancellations last spring, and fares haven’t climbed as fast as inflation overall, according to Airlines for America, the trade association for large US carriers.

“We’re confident the week is going to go well,” Sharon Pinkerton, A4A’s senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, said at a briefing Wednesday.

As for Claudia Estudillo, she’s now thinking that her family’s Christmas trip to visit relatives in Mexico City will likely be by car. “Christmas tickets are very, very expensive,” she said.

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