Thanksgiving travel: Airlines scramble to avoid meltdowns after summer chaos

Remark

Airlines handled the first weekend with ease in what they say is another sprawling Thanksgiving travel period, an early sign that their optimism heading into a critical holiday season is well founded. But as the industry ramps up for one of the busiest times of the year, peak holiday days and a threat of inclement weather lie ahead.

Industry leaders have prepared for a Thanksgiving that feels more like a long, busy week of travel than a frenzied rush to the airport on Wednesday and again on Sunday — the result of flexible schedules that allow some to work from anywhere. More than 2 million people a day have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints since Thursday, up from another 2.4 million on Friday.

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

This week’s holiday is a major test of airlines’ recovery during the pandemic 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, curtailing business travel while opening the door to travel that combines work, leisure and family visits.

Market leaders are optimistic, saying more hires and fewer flights means airlines have staff to avoid major delays and cancellations.

“We feel we’ve definitely done a great job of making sure we’re staffed, making sure people are trained and have extra people on board to handle Thanksgiving trips,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of president for law and regulatory policy at trade group Airlines for America. “And that makes us confident that the week will go well.”

The stakes are high for the industry. A rocky summer with high cancellation rates drew the ire of passengers, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Federal officials last week announced fines against six airlines for delayed refunds, indicating they would watch as the holiday season unfolds.

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“We’re excited to see demand returning as no one could have imagined, with more and more passengers having the income and desire to take to the skies,” Buttigieg said Monday during a visit to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “But we also know this means airlines must continue to take steps to meet the challenges of servicing the tickets they sell.”

Executives expect the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest day for air travel during the period when TSA said more than 2.5 million people could pass through its gates. United Airlines expects it to be its busiest day since the start of the pandemic, with about 460,000 passengers. The airline said on Sunday it would add 275 flights to its schedule to meet demand.

Outside the control of airlines, the weather can put a damper on travel. Forecasters said weather will be generally calm across the country on Wednesday, though a powerful storm system will be possible in the eastern United States from Friday.

Analysts and airline officials say the overall trend shaping the industry over the holiday season and beyond is for passengers to work remotely, ushering in a mix of business and leisure travel. Helane Becker, an analyst with the financial firm Cowen, said this has potential benefits for both airlines and their customers.

“It’s more manageable, frankly,” Becker said for airlines. “It allows them to be less peaky.” For customers, it allows them to get better prices.”

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Rates remain high, rising in the early summer months before easing this fall. The average of domestic fares tracked by the booking app Hopper stands at about $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 at American Airlines, said the airline is seeing increased demand during traditionally slower periods around Thanksgiving, such as Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

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

While airline leaders exude confidence in their ability to handle the coming days, the pandemic and subsequent recovery have caught airlines off guard before. Last year’s Thanksgiving went smoothly and instilled confidence, only for the Omicron variety and severe weather caused weeks of misery over Christmas and New Year’s.

Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, said employees are nervous as the holiday season begins.

She said even with nearly 4,000 new flight attendants on the job, operations remain chaotic. The company has made adjustments, such as shortened schedules, to better align operations with available staff, but Montgomery said an accident in the fragile system could cause unrest.

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

Southwest became the first airline to surpass 2019 employment numbers last summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives said they have made reliability a priority and will be able to handle the busy holiday season.

“We’ve been very focused on making sure we align our resources with our full-year schedules,” Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said during a recent earnings call. “I feel like we’re really poised to perform well over the holiday season as we head into Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”

The pandemic has also changed the way travelers get to the airport, with fewer people taking public transportation or using ride-hailing services. The trend has led to garages being full at some airports during peak periods. Airport leaders have urged travelers to reserve a spot in advance or, if available, take the train to their flight.

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

TSA Administrator David Pekoske said Monday the agency is prepared for a busy holiday travel period. He said he expects passenger numbers to approach pre-pandemic levels.

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

On Monday, there were signs at Reagan National Airport that travelers were keen to get ahead of the crowds.

Among those hoping for a hassle-free trip was Karla Vega, 19, a freshman at Catholic University. She said she was relieved she left for Wisconsin on Monday instead of Wednesday.

“It will be very nice to be with my family again,” she said.

Even as passenger numbers rise and revenues recover, the industry still faces challenges.

Several major airlines are in contentious contract negotiations with pilots. The prospect of a strike is a long way off, but analysts say the talks are expected to end with double-digit wage increases, on a percentage basis. That would add cost at a time when airlines are already paying more for fuel and supplies, but union leaders say a deal could bring stability.

Business and international travel, important sources of revenue for airlines, are also lagging, while domestic leisure travel is picking up again. An analysis by Airlines for America found that Saturday and Sunday passenger numbers are within 5 percent of 2019 levels, but Tuesday and Wednesday passenger numbers are down more than 10 percent — an indicator of the decrease in business travel. Analysts say continued inflation or a recession could also dampen holiday travel.

Becker said there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. A measure that compares the size of the economy to the number of tickets sold suggests there is still room for the industry to grow.

“I think that’s why airline boards are so optimistic,” Becker said. “That’s why I’m more optimistic than usual.”

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