The rush of Thanksgiving travel is back this year, as people have taken planes in numbers not seen in years, putting inflation woes aside to reunite with loved ones and enjoy some normality after two holidays Christmas marked by COVID-19 restrictions.
Changing work and leisure habits, however, could broaden the crowds and reduce the usual amount of travel stress during the holidays. Experts say many people will start vacation trips early or come home later than normal because they’ll spend a few days working remotely, or at least tell their boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are usually Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays after the holidays. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with approximately 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams, of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew Tuesday morning with his wife and two children to Atlanta, Georgia to spend the holidays with his extended family.
“It’s obviously a stressful and expensive time to fly,” said Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a couple years of not being able to spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, I’d say we feel grateful that the world has come to a safe enough place where we can be with our loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family’s budget has been tight this year, she used the opportunity to teach her children some personal finance basics. Her youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget pocket money since March and is keen on buying small gifts for her friends on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Probably slime,” she said, “with glitter.”
The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly 2.3 million travelers on Tuesday, down from more than 2.4 million screened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Monday, the numbers were up from 2019: more than 2.6 million of travelers compared to 2.5 million. The same trend occurred on Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people taking planes in the week of Thanksgiving has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone is traveling on that Wednesday night,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president, commercial group Airlines for America. “People are spreading their travel throughout the week, which I also think will help ensure smoother operations.”
AAA predicts 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the United States this week, a 1.5 percent increase from last year’s Thanksgiving and just 2 percent fewer than in 2019. The auto club and insurance salesman says nearly 49 million of them will travel by car, and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
US airlines have struggled to keep up with rising passenger numbers this year.
“We’ve had a busy summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members including American, United and Delta. He said airlines have reduced their hours and hired thousands of workers: they now have more pilots than before the pandemic. “As a result, we are confident the week will go well.”
US airlines expect to operate 13% fewer flights this week than the week of Thanksgiving in 2019. However, by using larger planes on average, the number of seats will decrease by only 2%, according to travel researcher data Cirium.
Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions on air traffic controller shortages, especially in Florida, a major tourist destination.
The controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, “are tested over the holidays. This seems to be when we have challenges,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “The FAA is adding another 10 percent to the headcount, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg disputed those claims, saying the vast majority of delays and cancellations are caused by the airlines themselves.
TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and likely on par with 2019. The busiest day in TSA history came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened at airport checkpoints.
Stephanie Escutia, who travels with four children, her husband and mother, said it took the family four hours to clear screening and security at the Orlando airport early Tuesday. The family was flying back to Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised at how full the park was,” said Escutia, 32. “We thought it might be a little down, but it was full.”
She welcomed the sense of normalcy and said her family would get together for Thanksgiving without worrying about keeping their distance this year. “We are now back to normal and we are looking forward to a great vacation,” she said.
People who get behind the wheel or get on a plane don’t seem perturbed by the year-on-year increase in gasoline and airline ticket prices or by widespread concern about inflation and the economy. This is already leading to strong travel forecasts for Christmas and New Years.
“This pent-up demand for travel is still a real thing. It doesn’t look like it’s going away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for Lonely Planet, the publisher of travel guides. “That keeps the planes full, it keeps the prices up.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, and AP video reporter Terence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter