The Thanksgiving holiday travel fever has returned this year as people catch planes in numbers not seen in years, setting inflation concerns aside to reconnect with loved ones and enjoy normalcy after two holiday seasons marred by COVID-19 restrictions.
However, changing your work and play habits can disperse the crowds and reduce the usual stress associated with holiday travel. Experts say many people will start their holiday trips earlier or return home later than usual because they’ll spend a few days working remotely – or at least tell their boss they’re working remotely.
The busiest days of the Thanksgiving week are usually the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday after Christmas. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration expects Tuesday to be the busiest travel day with around 48,000 scheduled flights.
Chris Williams from Raleigh, North Carolina, flew Tuesday morning with his wife and two children to Atlanta, Georgia, to spend a vacation with extended family.
“Of course, flying is a stressful and expensive time,” 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 that the world is in a safe enough place where we can be with loved ones again.”
Although Williams said the family budget was tight this year, he took the opportunity to teach his children the basics of personal finance. His youngest daughter, 11, has been learning how to budget for 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 travelers on Tuesday, up from more than 2.4 million on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Monday, those numbers increased compared to 2019 – more than 2.6 million travelers compared to 2.5 million. The same trend occurred Sunday, marking the first year that the number of people catching planes on Thanksgiving Day surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“People travel on different days. Not everyone is traveling this Wednesday night,” says Sharon Pinkerton, vice president of the airlines for America commercial group. “People are spreading their trips out over the week, which I think will also help to ensure a smoother experience.”
The AAA predicts 54.6 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home in the U.S. this week, up 1.5% on Thanksgiving last year and only 2% less than in 2019 The car club and insurance retailer says nearly 49 million of them will travel by car and 4.5 million will fly from Wednesday to Sunday.
US airlines have struggled to keep up with passenger growth this year.
“We’ve had a tough summer,” said Pinkerton, whose group speaks for members including American, United and Delta. She said airlines have reduced their schedules and hired thousands of workers – they now have more pilots than 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, according to Cirium data, using larger planes on average will reduce seat capacity by only 2%.
Airlines continue to blame flight disruptions on shortages of air traffic controllers, especially in Florida, a major vacation destination.
The controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, “take their tests around the holidays. We seem to have challenges then,” Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle said a few days ago. “FAA adds another 10% to headcount, hope that’s enough.”
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg 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 likely to be closer to 2019. TSA’s busiest day on record was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened at airports.
Stephanie Escutia, traveling with four children, a husband and mother, said it took the family four hours to get through security and screening at Orlando airport on Tuesday. The family was returning to Kansas City for Thanksgiving after a birthday trip to Disney World.
“We were surprised at how full the park was,” said Escutia, 32. “We thought it might drop a bit but it was busy.”
She welcomed the sense of normalcy and said her family would get together for Thanksgiving without worrying about keeping their distance this year. “Now we are back to normal and looking forward to a nice holiday,” she said.
People getting behind the wheel or boarding a plane don’t seem to be unfazed by higher gas and airfare prices than last year, or widespread concern about inflation and the economy. This is already leading to strong travel predictions over the Christmas and New Year period.
“The pent-up demand for travel is still real. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away,” says Tom Hall, vice president and longtime writer for Lonely Planet, a publisher of travel guides. “That keeps the planes full, that keeps the prices high.”
Associated press writers Hannah Schoenbaum of Raleigh, North Carolina, Margaret Stafford of Kansas City, and AP video journalist Terence Chea of Oakland, California contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at twitter.com/airlinewriter