The Thanksgiving travel rush is back this year, as people take off planes in numbers not seen in years, put aside inflation fears to reunite with loved ones and enjoy some normalcy after two holiday seasons marked by coronavirus restrictions.
However, changing habits around work and play may diffuse crowds and reduce the usual amount of holiday travel stress. Experts say many people will start vacation trips early or go home later than usual because they’ll be spending a few days working remotely — or at least telling their boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest days for travel during Thanksgiving week are usually the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after the holiday. This year, the FAA expects Tuesday to be the busiest day for travel, with about 48,000 flights scheduled.
Chris Williams, of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew Tuesday morning with his wife and two children to Atlanta, Georgia, for the vacation with extended family.
“Of course it’s stressful and expensive flying time,” said Williams, 44, who works in the financial sector. “But after two years of not spending Thanksgiving with our extended family, I want to say we are 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 budget has been tight this year, he took advantage of the opportunity to teach his kids some basics of personal finance. The youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget her relief money since March and is excited about buying her friends little gifts this Black Friday or Cyber Monday. “Maybe slime,” she said, “glitter.”
TSA screened nearly 2.3 million passengers on Tuesday, down from more than 2.4 million screened on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Monday, the numbers are up compared to 2019 — more than 2.6 million passengers compared to 2.5 million. That same trend occurred on Sunday, the first year that the number of people catching planes the week of Thanksgiving exceeded pre-pandemic levels.
“People fly on different days. Not everyone is flying on that Wednesday night,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president, American Airlines Commercial Group. “People spread their travel out over the course of the week, which I also think will help ensure smoother operations. .”
AAA predicts that 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the United States this week, up 1.5% from last year’s Thanksgiving and just 2% less than in 2019. The auto club and insurance vendor say nearly 49 million of They will want to travel. By car, 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 challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks on behalf of members that include American, United and Delta. She said airlines have trimmed their schedules and hired thousands of workers — and they now have more pilots than they did before the pandemic. “As a result, we are confident that the week will go well.”
US airlines plan to operate 13% fewer flights this week than Thanksgiving week in 2019. However, by using larger planes on average, seat count will drop only 2%, according to data from travel researcher Cirium.
Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions on a shortage of air traffic controllers, especially in Florida, a major vacation destination.
Controllers, who work for the FAA, “get tested on holidays. That seems to happen when we’re challenged,” Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines, said a few days ago. “The FAA adds another 10% to the number of Staff, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transportation Minister Pete Buttigieg has disputed 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 possibly 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 checked at airport checkpoints.
Stephanie Escutia, who was traveling with four children, her husband and her mother, said it took the family four hours to go through screening and security at Orlando airport early Tuesday. The family was back in Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
Escutia, 32, said: “We were surprised at how full the park was. We thought it might be parked apart but it was packed.”
She welcomed a 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 looking forward to a happy holiday,” she said.
People getting behind the wheel or getting on a plane don’t seem fazed by higher gas prices and airfares than a year ago or widespread concern about inflation and the economy. This has already led to predictions of strong travel over Christmas and New Years.
“This pent-up demand for travel is still very real. It doesn’t seem like it’s going away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer at Lonely Planet, publisher of travel guides. “That keeps planes full, and that keeps prices up.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, and Associated Press video journalist Terrence Chia in Oakland, California, contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter
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