The Thanksgiving travel rush returned this year as people took planes in numbers they hadn’t seen in years, eased inflation concerns and reunited with loved ones after two holiday seasons marked by COVID-19 restrictions. Enjoyed the normality.
However, changing habits around work and leisure can reduce crowds and reduce the overall amount of vacation travel stress. Experts say many people are going on vacation early or returning home later than usual because they’ll be working remotely for a few days — or at least telling the boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest travel days during Thanksgiving week tend to be the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after the holiday. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with nearly 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams of Raleigh, North Carolina, flew to Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and two children on Tuesday morning to spend the holidays with his extended family.
“It’s definitely a stressful and expensive time to fly,” said Williams, 44, who works in finance. “But after a few years of spending Thanksgiving with our extended family, I’d say we’re thankful the world has reached a safe place where we can be with our loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family budget was tight this year, she took the opportunity to teach her kids some personal finance basics. Her youngest, 11, has been learning how to budget her pocket money since March and is excited to buy small 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 passengers on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, up from 2.4 million in 2019. On Monday, numbers were higher than in 2019 — with more than 2.6 million passengers compared to 2.5 million. The same trend occurred on Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people taking planes on Thanksgiving week surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone travels that Wednesday night,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at trade group Airlines for America. “People are spreading their travel throughout the week, which I think will also help the operation run smoothly.”
AAA predicts that 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the US this week, up 1.5% from last year’s Thanksgiving and down just 2% from 2019. The auto club and insurance salesman says about 49 million people will travel by car, and 4.5 million fly between Wednesday and Sunday.
US airlines have struggled this year to keep up with the rise in passenger numbers.
“We’ve had a challenging summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members like American, United and Delta. She said airlines have cut their schedules and laid off thousands of workers — they now have more pilots than before the pandemic. “That’s why we believe it’s going to be a good week.”
U.S. airlines are planning to operate 13% fewer flights this week than Thanksgiving week in 2019, according to data from travel researcher Cerium. However, on average, the use of larger aircraft would only reduce the number of seats by 2%.
Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions due to a lack of air traffic controllers, especially in Florida, a major vacation destination.
The inspectors, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, “are having the tests done around the holidays. Then we have challenges,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines, a few days ago. “The FAA is adding another 10% to the workforce, hopefully that will be enough.”
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has disputed such claims, stating that most delays and cancellations are caused by the airlines themselves.
The TSA expects airports to be busier than last year and likely similar to 2019. The busiest day in TSA history came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened 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 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 how full the park was,” says Escutia, 32. “We thought it was because of something, but it was full.”
Welcoming a sense of normalcy, she said her family would get together for Thanksgiving this year without worrying about keeping their distance. “Now we are back to normal and looking forward to a nice holiday,” she said.
Those behind the wheel or boarding a plane seem unimpressed by higher gas and airfare prices than last year, or widespread concern about inflation and the economy. It already predicts a lot of travel during Christmas and New Years.
“This pent-up demand for travel still exists. It doesn’t look like it’s going away,” said Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for travel guide publisher Lonely Planet. “It keeps planes full, which keeps prices high.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, and AP videojournalist Terrence Chee in Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter
David Koenig and Alexandra Olsson, The Associated Press