As the holiday season approaches, airlines are anticipating record-breaking travel demand this Thanksgiving. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is slated to screen a staggering 30 million passengers from November 17th through November 28th, marking the highest number in history. With an estimated 2.9 million passengers expected to take to the skies on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, airlines are bracing themselves for the influx of travelers. This article delves into how the aviation industry is preparing for the year-end holidays amid challenges like shortages of air traffic controllers and rising fuel and labor costs.
Challenges and Preparedness
The holiday period holds immense significance for airlines, presenting an opportunity to boost revenue after a post-pandemic lull in travel demand. While carriers have resorted to fare discounts or reduced growth during non-peak periods, Thanksgiving remains a time when airlines can command higher fares. However, the industry must navigate potential obstacles such as extended air traffic controller shortages. Considering the winter storm that resulted in numerous flight cancellations last year, airlines have been rigorously preparing to avoid a recurrence of costly missteps.
Southwest Airlines, in particular, has focused on strengthening its weather readiness. Following severe winter weather in late 2023 and early 2024, the carrier canceled a staggering 16,700 flights. Southwest has since invested in enhancing its aircraft de-icing capabilities and improving technology to facilitate smoother rescheduling of crews in the event of flight disruptions. Andrew Watterson, Chief Operating Officer of Southwest Airlines, stresses the importance of keeping the airline’s operations moving, emphasizing that any stagnation can lead to negative consequences.
Meanwhile, Southwest is not the only airline prioritizing preparedness. United Airlines has adopted a proactive approach with “winter readiness” initiatives that commence even as temperatures soar in the summer. The airline has taken steps to upgrade self-service tools in its mobile app, enabling customers to rebook themselves during flight disruptions. Additionally, United has introduced a new economy boarding order, sequencing passengers by window seat, middle seat, and aisle seat, thereby saving approximately two minutes during the boarding process. The cumulative effect of these time savings extends beyond individual flights, ultimately benefiting subsequent flights as well.
Projected Passenger Numbers and Fare Trends
According to estimates by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Thanksgiving flights are anticipated to peak at 49,606 on the Wednesday preceding the holiday, surpassing last year’s peak of 48,192 flights. Delta Air Lines predicts that it will transport between 6.2 million and 6.4 million passengers from November 17th to November 28th, signifying a year-on-year increase compared to 5.7 million passengers in 2022 and 6.25 million in 2019. Similarly, United Airlines expects a 13% rise in passengers from last year, flying a total of 5.9 million individuals from November 17th to November 29th, which surpasses 2019 figures by 5%. American Airlines forecasts a new record with approximately 7.8 million travelers from November 16th to November 28th, surpassing last year’s 7 million passengers and 2019 figures by approximately 200,000.
In a welcome relief, many Thanksgiving fares are lower than their counterparts from previous years. As airlines have increased service in recent months, the average cost of domestic round trips hovers around $248, as reported by flight-tracking site Hopper. This represents a decline from last year’s $271 and 2019’s $276, which were witnessed prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The overall decrease in airfare surpasses 13% in the latest U.S. data.
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, airlines are preparing for an unprecedented surge in travel demand. As the TSA braces to screen a record-breaking 30 million passengers, airlines are determined to ensure a smooth travel experience amidst potential challenges. From weather readiness initiatives to upgrading self-service tools, carriers like Southwest Airlines and United Airlines are leaving no stone unturned to minimize disruptions and enhance customer satisfaction. Despite rising fuel and labor costs, airlines are optimistic about leveraging the peak holiday period to boost revenue. Moreover, with lower fares compared to pre-pandemic years, customers can look forward to more affordable travel options this Thanksgiving.