The Thanksgiving travel rush was back this year as people caught planes in a number not seen in years, put inflation worries aside to reunite with loved ones and after two holiday seasons marred by COVID-19 restrictions were to enjoy some normality.
However, a change in work and leisure habits could spread the crowds and reduce the usual stress of holiday travel. Experts say many people are starting their vacation trips earlier or returning home later than normal because they’re working remotely for a few days — or at least telling the boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are typically the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after the holiday. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest day, with around 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams, of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew to Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two children Tuesday morning to spend the holidays with extended family.
“Obviously it’s a stressful and expensive time to fly,” said Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a few years of not being able to spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, I would say that we are grateful that the world has come to a safe place where we can be with our loved ones again.”
Though Williams said the family’s budget was tight that year, he took the opportunity to teach his kids some basics of personal finance. His youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget for her pocket money since March and looks forward to buying small gifts for her friends on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Probably slime,” she said, “with glitter.”
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.6 million travelers Monday, surpassing the 2.5 million screened on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019. The same trend emerged Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people boarding planes during Thanksgiving week surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone is traveling this Wednesday night,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at trade group Airlines for America. “People are spreading their trips out throughout the week, which I think will help smooth operations as well.”
AAA predicts 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the U.S. this week, up 1.5% from last year’s Thanksgiving and down just 2% from 2019. The auto club and insurance seller says that nearly 49 million of those will travel by car, and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
US airlines have struggled to keep up as passenger numbers soared this year.
“We’ve had a challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members like American, United and Delta. She said airlines have cut schedules and hired thousands of workers – they now have more pilots than they did before the pandemic. “That’s why we’re confident that the week will go well.”
U.S. airlines plan to operate 13% fewer flights this week than during Thanksgiving week in 2019. However, the average deployment of larger planes will only decrease seat count by 2%, according to data from travel researcher Cirium.
Airlines continue to blame the lack of air traffic controllers for flight disruptions, particularly in Florida, a major vacation destination.
Air traffic controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration “are tested around the holidays. This seems to be when we have challenges,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “The FAA is adding an additional 10% to the headcount, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has denied such 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 around 2019 levels. The busiest day in TSA history was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people attended checked by airport security.
Stephanie Escutia, who is traveling with four children, her husband and mother, said it took the family four hours to get through security and security at the Orlando airport early Tuesday. The family returned to Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised at how busy the park was,” said Escutia, 32. “We thought it might be a bit run down, but it was packed.”
She welcomed the sense of normalcy and said her family would gather for Thanksgiving without worrying about distancing this year. “Now we’re back to normal and looking forward to a great holiday,” she said.
Higher fuel and airfare prices than last year, nor widespread concerns about inflation and the economy, seem to have got people behind the wheel or on planes. This means that heavy travel is already being forecast over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“This pent-up demand for travel is still real. It doesn’t feel like it’s going away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime author of Lonely Planet, the travel guide publisher. “That keeps the planes full, that keeps the prices high.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, and AP video journalist Terence Chea in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter