The Thanksgiving travel rush was back this year as people boarded planes in numbers not seen in years, putting inflation concerns aside to reunite with loved ones and enjoy some normalcy after two seasons. holidays marked by COVID-19 restrictions.
Changing habits around work and leisure, however, could disperse crowds and reduce the usual stress of holiday travel. Experts say many people will start their holiday trips earlier or return home later than usual as they spend a few days working remotely – or at least tell the boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week are usually Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after the holidays. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with around 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams, of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew out Tuesday morning with his wife and two children to Atlanta, Georgia to spend the holidays with his extended family.
“Of course 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’d say we’re grateful the world has come to a place that’s safe enough where we can be with our loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family’s budget was tight this year, he took the opportunity to teach his children some personal finance basics. Her youngest, 11, has been learning to budget her pocket money since March and is happy to buy little 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, up from more than 2.4 million the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. The numbers on Monday were up from 2019 — more than 2.6 million travelers against 2.5 million. That same trend occurred on Sunday, marking the first year the number of people taking planes the week of Thanksgiving exceeded pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone is traveling this Wednesday night,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of the Airlines for America business group. “People are spreading out their trips throughout the week, which I also think will help ensure smoother operations.”
AAA predicts that 54.6 million people will walk at least 50 miles from home in the United States this week, a 1.5% increase from Thanksgiving last year and just 2% less than in 2019. The auto club and insurance salesman say nearly 49 million of them travel by car, and 4.5 million will fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
US airlines have struggled to keep pace as passenger numbers have surged this year.
“We’ve had a tough summer,” said Pinkerton, whose band speaks on behalf of members like American, United and Delta. She said airlines have cut 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 during Thanksgiving week in 2019. However, using larger planes on average, seating will only drop by 2%, data shows. from travel researcher Cirium.
Airlines continue to attribute flight disruptions to a shortage of air traffic controllers, particularly in Florida, a major vacation destination.
The controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, “get tested while on vacation. This seems to be the time when we have challenges,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “The FAA is adding another 10% to its workforce, hopefully that’s enough.”
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg disputed those claims, saying the vast majority of delays and cancellations are caused by the airlines themselves.
The TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and likely about the same as 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, traveling with four children, her husband and mother, said it took the family four hours to clear screening and security at Orlando airport early on Tuesday. The family was returning to Kansas City in time for Thanksgiving after an anniversary trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised how full the park was,” Escutia, 32, said. “We thought it might be down, but it was packed.”
She praised the sense of normalcy and said her family would come together for Thanksgiving without worrying about keeping their distance this year. “Now we are back to normal and looking forward to a good holiday,” she said.
People getting behind the wheel or boarding a plane don’t seem fazed by the rise in gas and airfare prices over last year or by widespread worries about inflation and the economy. This is already leading to strong travel forecasts over Christmas and New Year.
“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 writer for Lonely Planet, the travel guide publisher. “It keeps planes full, it keeps prices high.”
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